Supporting disadvantaged children


While the make up of the Maintained Nursery Schools visited as part of the research was varied, every interviewee highlighted the large number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds that the schools support in comparison with other settings in the local area. As stated in the introduction, there is limited quantitative data indicating the proportions of deprived children attending different setting types, but the latest data shows that Maintained nursery schools are disproportionately located in areas of disadvantage. Many headteachers spoke of the high number of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) attending the school, with one citing a 92 per cent EAL rate across the schools’ cohort. Several headteachers highlighted that there is sometimes an overlap between children who are disadvantaged and those who are vulnerable, and emphasised that they also support a disproportionate number of children known to social care or other agencies. For example, one headteacher reported that this group of children made up a third of the cohort at her school.

Interviewees highlighted several potential reasons for this. The first is related to the geographical situation of some of the schools, many of which have been set up in areas of disadvantage where private settings may be less financially viable. The second is the fact that many Maintained nursery schools do not offer full wraparound support and holiday provision, so more affluent parents who are working full time will often decide against an MNS in favour of a PVI that does provide this. Equally, PVI settings may prioritise children whose parents that are willing and able to pay for wraparound support on top of the free entitlement. Thirdly, some interviewees highlighted that some PVI settings are not always welcoming to more disadvantaged children, and sometimes do not have the expertise to meet their needs or work as effectively with the parents.

The fourth reason given as to why Maintained Nursery Schools tend to support a disproportionate number of disadvantaged children was that the local authority has relied on these settings to deliver funded places for these children, which may be less profitable for private settings to deliver. For example, the vast majority of Maintained Nursery Schools offer places for 2 year olds who qualify for the free entitlement. Provision for 2 year olds makes up 20 per cent of funded places provided by Maintained Nursery Schools in London, in comparison to 10 per cent for the average provider. Much of this discrepancy arises from the fact that it is uncommon for primary schools to offer 2 year old provision. However, after taking into account the fact that a significant amount of the childcare delivered by PVI settings will be paid for by parents, and therefore not included in the statistics for funded hours, 2 year old provision also becomes a much smaller part of the service offered by the average PVI in comparison to the average Maintained nursery school.

Some local authorities have also previously funded free hours for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds, on top of the universal entitlement, to support their development and wellbeing and help narrow the gap at school age. The large majority of these children are not eligible for the 15 hours extension. Local authorities have relied heavily on Maintained Nursery Schools to deliver these additional hours for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds. For example, around 60 per cent of the children at one of the nursery schools are currently receiving full time places funded by the local authority. However, the majority of councils have recently stopped offering this additional provision, or are gradually phasing it out, as the restrictions that the new Early Years National Funding Formula (EYNFF) places on the amount of funding that councils can retain means that they can no longer access the funds to offer this provision.  

In terms of the support provided to more vulnerable children, several schools said that local authority panels referred children on the Children in Need register directly to the settings, as they knew they would be able to offer the appropriate level of support to fit the complexity of need.

Supporting disadvantaged children to access nursery provision

All of the headteachers that were interviewed as part of the research saw providing places for disadvantaged children as a key priority. Some of the Maintained Nursery Schools offered the 30 hours entitlement to 3 and 4 year olds with working parents because they believed that, if they did not, many working parents would choose to send their children to a setting where they could receive their full entitlement, and thus no longer take up the universal 15 hours at the Maintained Nursery School. However, the schools’ focus was largely on delivering the universal entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds (i.e. the 15 hours), alongside the 2 year old entitlement, as they saw their role as supporting all families, particularly the most deprived.

A common theme in the interviews was the desire amongst headteachers to make it as easy as possible for disadvantaged children to take up an early years place. There were three key ways in which schools achieved this. Firstly, the large majority of headteachers talked about saving places in the next class for disadvantaged 2 year olds who they knew would be coming through the system. This is done to ensure that 2 year olds are able to move to the 3 year old class after their third birthday, and do not run the risk of being unable to access a place. It was also deemed to be important for schools to support a disadvantaged child through from 2 years old to school age, so that the keyworkers can build a trusting relationship with parents, maintain stability for both child and parent, and use their knowledge of child development and the individual to ensure that the child makes good progress. While headteachers explained that Maintained Nursery Schools save places for deprived children as a matter of course, they highlighted that this is not common practice in other setting types. It was thought that PVI settings did not tend to take this approach because it can mean keeping a space empty for several months when it could be filled by another child. Headteachers highlighted the strain that this policy of saving places can put on school budgets but felt it was essential to providing essential support for the most deprived children.

The second way in which several Maintained Nursery Schools support the take up of free entitlement amongst disadvantaged families is to have an admissions policy that explicitly prioritises places for the neediest children. Many interviewees conveyed a very practical, ‘can-do’ approach to providing places for children where the need was great, and a few even spoke of funding additional hours from their own budgets in a small number of instances where they were concerned about the welfare of the child.

The third approach to supporting disadvantaged children to take up a place at the nursery is via children’s centres. Several of the Maintained Nursery Schools were attached to children’s centres, and some of the headteachers run the children’s centres as well as the schools, ensuring a close link between the services provided by the two setting types. Disadvantaged and vulnerable families who engage in children’s centre services are encouraged to access early years provision at the Maintained nursery school, and someone from the nursery will support them to apply for the early years entitlements. Equally, the Maintained Nursery Schools will encourage children and families to access the children’s centre services to support their development and wellbeing outside of the free hours they access at the nursery.

Supporting disadvantaged children to get the most out of nursery provision

All of the headteachers spoke about how vital staffing levels and qualifications are to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children can progress. Research has established the importance of graduate led provision, particularly for disadvantaged groups, and Ofsted has reiterated this, claiming “nursery schools have high levels of graduate level staff and perform as strongly in deprived areas as in more affluent ones” Interviewees emphasised that qualified teachers are able to more effectively identify the needs of individual children, monitor their progress, design individualised plans and targets, and ensure that they are able to ‘catch up’ with their peers during their time at the school. Many interviewees talked about children from more disadvantaged backgrounds coming into the school with a level of development that is significantly lower than average, and leaving with a similar level of development to their peers. For example, the average level of development of a child when they start at Children’s House Nursery School in Tower Hamlets at around 40 months (the term after their third birthday) is equivalent to the level expected at just 22 months. By the time they leave, the majority of these children have reached the average level of development, with some exceeding this. The headteacher at Children’s House believed that this was predominantly down to staff expertise and experience.

Secondly, the schools place a strong emphasis on the extra-curricular elements of children’s learning. Most of the nurseries had large outdoor spaces and many had forest schools where the children could undertake activities such as growing vegetables, gardening, healthy eating, and looking after pets. Those that did not have a forest school on site made trips with the children to a nearby forest school. Several nurseries had specific staff in the role of forest school leader, or play leader, who would model good play and support the children to increase their independence outside the classroom. Several interviewees said that the forest schools gave children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often rarely left their borough, experiences that they would otherwise not be exposed to. Similarly, the Maintained Nursery Schools place a focus on taking children on trips – funded from the nursery school budget – to widen their cultural horizons. Examples of trips include visits to museums, theatres, camping and the seaside. These trips were seen as being beneficial for disadvantaged children in particular, who are likely to be less exposed to such opportunities than their peers.

Thirdly, many interviewees spoke about the work the schools did to support the children in their life outside the nursery school, as working effectively with parents and helping overcome issues in the home impacts greatly on the child’s development and wellbeing. This is explored further in the section ‘Supporting families’. Most interviewees highlighted the close links the schools had with local authority services, such as social care and early help, housing and domestic abuse support services. This was described as a two-way relationship which helps both Maintained Nursery Schools and other agencies to better understand and support the children involved. Interviewees saw themselves very much as part of a wider system of support around the child.

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Case studies

Around 25 children at Comet Nursery School in Hackney are claiming Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP). The school has developed a model to maximise the impact of the relatively small amount of funding that settings receive to support children eligible for EYPP. Comet identified communication and language as a key challenge for some of their more disadvantaged pupils and devised a programme that would give them new experiences and improve their language skills by encouraging them to put these new experiences into words. The school employ a professional gardener who helps this group of children learn about gardening, growing vegetables and cooking – the aim is to get the children interested in healthy eating and thereby contribute to tackling the high obesity rate in the area. Another key priority of the programme is to expand the children’s cultural capital by taking them on outings that are relatively low cost by expose them to opportunities they may not otherwise access. For example, recent outings include visits to the Tate Modern, Transport Museum, a walk around central London, duck hunting and a trip to the local Vietnamese restaurant. The nursery monitors children’s communication skills prior to and after the interventions and have found the programme to have a positive impact on children’s early language. Comet’s innovative approach to the EYPP has won them the Early Years Pupil Premium award and the headteacher has shared her experience of the approach at several conferences and events. 


30 per cent of spaces in Islington’s maintained nursery schools are reserved for 3 and 4 year olds under Islington’s priority referral service for children with additional needs, many of whom are currently funded by Islington to receive full time places. The panel often refers children with the most extreme needs and challenges to the Maintained Nursery Schools because of their expertise and commitment to this particular cohort. One of these nursery schools is Margaret McMillan. Despite the fact that a third of the children at the school have additional needs or are known to other agencies such as social care, the vast majority of children have reached an age appropriate level by the time they start primary school (the minority that do not are predominantly those with SEND). The headteacher and staff at the school are committed to ensuring that these children are supported as effectively as possible, both in the nursery and in their home lives. The headteacher keeps in regular contact with the local authority social care team to ensure that staff members across the two organisations are best equipped and informed to support this cohort of children, and nursery staff will always attend inter-agency forums to contribute to the creation of Early Help plans. A senior member of staff at Margaret McMillan talks social workers and health visitors through the process for applying for 2 year old provision to ensure that as many disadvantaged children are supported to take this up as possible. The nursery also places a high level of importance on supporting, training and nurturing its staff. For example, the nursery had recently paid for all of the senior nursery nurses and Special Educational Needs Coordinator to receive the training to the level of a Designated Safeguarding Lead, as it was deemed to be essential for staff to feel able to identify vulnerability and confident in supporting some of the most vulnerable families. The school places an emphasis on developing staff’s perseverance, confidence and resilience, and ensuring they are equipped to support this challenging cohort of children. Over time the nursery has built up a system of reflective practice, working with other agencies to understand children’s needs, so current practitioners have regular opportunities to reflect on the issues they have come across and the interventions and services that would best support individual children.