It is nearly twenty years since a long-cherished goal of early years campaigners was delivered by the Blair government: the right to free nursery education for all three- and four-year olds. Since then, much has changed in early years policy: mothers are entitled to more time off and families have benefited from tax credits. Sure Start children's centres brought many services together too.
The free entitlement was to 12.5 hours a week of early years education, planned locally but largely delivered through private and voluntary providers (at the same time as vouchers were scrapped). That universal entitlement increased to 15 hours in 2010, and was extended in 2013 to less advantaged two-year-olds. The latest figures show that 93% of three year olds and 97% of four-year olds are taking advantage of the free provision. This month, children in working families had that entitlement extended to 30 hours a week.
But while extended access to childcare may do a lot to help the labour market and working mothers, and certainly represents a major increase in the state's commitment to childcare support, it may make it harder to improve social mobility through such early interventions. The government is trying to introduce this at a time of austerity, so quality could suffer.
And that's the nub of the problem. A third of eligible children - those from the poorest 40% of society - don't currently take up free provision at age two and a tenth of poorer families don't take up their entitlement at age three. The government has halted a commitment to improving the qualifications of those working with young children even though a third of such key workers haven't got decent GCSE passes in English and maths.
Sure Start and children's centres are being closed or stripped of many of their functions. Some benefits are being reduced for children, particularly in larger families. And funding is being reduced for the higher quality more expensive providers - maintained state nursery schools and reception classes - alongside the removal of a requirement that they should have a qualified teacher in the classroom.
The combination of these changes could see a reduction in quality and a widening of school readiness gaps just as there is some evidence that gaps have started to narrow. In particular, the restriction of the 30 hours to working parents could make it even harder for the children of mothers not in work to gain the developmental skills that could help them escape a cycle of disadvantage.
That's why our new Sutton Trust report, Closing Gaps Early is so timely. Prof Jane Waldfogel and Dr Kitty Stewart praise the progress that has been made under successive governments but sound a strong cautionary note about what's happening now.
There has been a growing recognition of the link between good quality nursery provision and school readiness. An earlier Trust report, Sound Foundations identified four key dimensions of good quality pedagogy for all children under three: stable relationships and interactions with sensitive and responsive adults; a focus on play-based activities and routines which allow children to take the lead in their own learning; support for communication and language; and opportunities to move and be physically active. Crucially, it stressed the importance of knowledgeable and capable practitioners, supported by strong leaders.
With gaps still as high as 17 percentage points between rich and poor children on the foundation profile when they start school, we can't afford to relax the drive to improve the quality of early years staff and access for disadvantaged children to good provision from the age of two. One suggestion in today's report is that all children should have three terms of very high quality provision prior to reception class, as the benefits of the longer entitlement are going disproportionately to children who are already doubly advantaged, by birth month and family background. If money is limited, it shouldn't be spread too thin.
There is no doubt that the extended access to free childcare for working families is a real boon for those in work, especially those from modest incomes facing cuts in other family and tax credits, but as the new policy comes into effect it is vital that we keep a close eye on all its impacts, and ensure that lack of money doesn't lead to loss of quality. If that happens, the progress of nearly twenty years could be placed in jeopardy and it Is the poorest children who will be the losers.