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U.K. Education System: Early Years Education Phase

The education system in the United Kingdom assumes a devolved structure. Each of the member countries has separate systems under separate governments. However, there are five common phases of education across all the countries; Early Years Education, Primary education, Secondary education, Further Education (F.E.), and Higher Education (HE). All children between the age of five and sixteen must receive an education. The lower age limit in Northern Ireland is, however, four years.

Further education is not compulsory. Thus, the further education phase is covered in non-advanced institutions and may be taken further to tertiary institutions such as education colleges. The Higher Education stage marks the highest rank of the U.K. education system. The phase is beyond GCA A levels and majorly takes place in universities and other higher education institutions. This paper will mainly focus on the Early Years Education System in the U.K., analyze the guiding principles, and identify its vision towards the future.

Early Years Education

Research on the U.K. birth cohorts has made a significant contribution towards understanding the significance of the first few years of the life of a child and the effects it has on their later education and social outcomes. Examples of such researchers include Cunha et al. (2007, p.31) and Quigley (2010, p.F167). Parental background and the development behavior adopted during the early years of the child’s upbringing have been seen to determine their education performance to a great extent though at varying degrees (Mensah, 2013, p.123). Due to the research, education policies and initiatives have been formulated to address the issue of education inequalities among children while in their early stages of life. England, for example, launched a national Childcare Strategy in 1998. Afterward, the country launched an initiative known as the Sure Start, which catered for pre-school provisions in 2004. In 2006, England introduced the Childcare Act, while in 2008, the Early Years Foundation Stage was launched (EYFS). EYFS caters to the educational needs of children from birth to the age of five years. The Scottish government also introduced the Early Years Framework (EYF) in 2008. The distinction between EYFS and EYF is that EYF includes children up to eight years. The devolved Welsh government has childcare education among its main priorities. The government developed a Flying Start program whose main aim was to highlight those families with children under the age of four that lived in the marginalized locations of Wales. The government also launched the Foundation Phase, a curriculum for all children aged three to eight years. According to Wincott (2006, p.279), the Foundation Phase has been termed the most distinct and innovative early childhood education curriculum in the U.K. The Political devolution across the U.K. has led to the difference in childcare and education activities across the four home nations. Therefore, an analysis will be conducted separately for each.

Early Years Education in England

The early years’ education program is not compulsory in England. England allowed all three- and four-year-old children access to fifteen hours of free nursery education for thirty-eight weeks throughout the year. In England, the initiative is branded as ‘universal entitlement .’The initiative has been running since September 2010. The publicly funded early years education is provided in nursery schools, primary schools, and academies. Sure, Start children’s centers are also used to conduct such studies. The government has also funded some private and voluntary settings to facilitate the same level of education if only they meet the given requirements. Private and voluntary settings include day nurseries, playgroups, and registered childminders. The centers play a vital role in providing childhood services (Early childhood education and care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). They offer early education and care, social services relating to young children, health services to young children and their parents, training and employment services to prospective parents, and information provision and advice to such parents. In September 2017, children aged three to four whose parents were working were entitled to a free nursery space for 30 hours a week, for 38 weeks in a year. The initiative is branded as the ‘extended entitlement. Two-year-old children are not entitled to any government benefits, not unless they come from disadvantaged families. The eligibility of the government funds is based on the economic background of the families represented.

A Special Education Needs (SEN) program was introduced in 2013 for this age group. In England, this phase of care and early childhood education is the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). The curriculum and assessment of this phase of education are guided by the Childcare Act of 2006, whose main focus is on areas of learning and development that shape the education programs, early learning goals, and assessment arrangements (Early childhood education and care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). Despite the participation in EYFS being voluntary, very few children in England stay at home; most of them attend pre-school or nursery either part-time or full time. The Childcare Act of 2006 is the main legislation that guides the early years’ funds throughout the year. The regulatory framework places the duty of securing the provision fees on the local authorities.

The main aim of the government is to ensure that early education and care in England is provided in a highly-diversified range to fit the needs of both children and their parents. The government seeks to support disadvantaged young children through the provisions. Education is viewed as an opportunity to improve their life chances and social mobility. According to the social mobility plan of the Department of Education (2017), the government aims at closing the gap experienced in early childhood development in relation to social and educational performance afterward. The gaps are to be tackled through supporting local authorities in the delivery of high-performing children’s services, ensuring high-quality health services by working with health workers, encouraging innovative practices into the program, and continuous delivery of the services. EYFS looks forward to making sure that every child is ready for school when they start, helping parents with the childcare cost, and ensuring quality early childhood education. EYFS is guided by four principles; a unique child, positive relationships, enabling environments, and learning and development (Early childhood education and care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). EYFS believes that every child is unique, and through constant learning, they become confident and resilient. Positive relationships are believed to mold children to become strong and independent individuals. Early childhood environments have a significant impact on the child’s development. Children can respond to their individual needs through strong relationships with parents and care takers. Children have varying abilities. The framework, therefore, ensures that the early education needs of every child, including those with special needs, are cared for.

Early Years Education in Wales

The early years’ education phase is not compulsory in Wales. Only children three to four years of age are publicly funded. Publicly funded education is offered in nursery schools. Alternatively, nursery classes are maintained in primary schools. Integrated children centers offer access to play, training, family support services, and other community education programs. Apart from the publicly funded education centers, there are voluntary and private centers such as the day nurseries and playgroups, supported by the government per a given set of requirements. The main provider of the Welsh-medium early education services is Mudiad Meithrin. The set targets of the early years’ education coverage in Wales have expanded over the years. All children ranging from three years to four years are currently entitled to government-provided funds in a free part-time place. The provision is available for a minimum of 10 hours every week, running for 38 weeks a year. Working parents who have children ranging from three to four years have been granted access to 30 hours for the early years’ education for 48 weeks in a year. The 30 hours entitlement was made available from September 2020 (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). The 30 hours entitlement allows for a minimum of 20 hours in a week for childcare services and 10 hours for early education. Any additional fees on top of the provisions are to be made by the parents themselves. Children under the age of three are not publicly funded by the Welsh government. However, the government owns a Flying Start program that supports the family and child health services of children from disadvantaged backgrounds at the age of two years.

The publicly funded institutions follow the Foundation Phase Framework. The provision curriculum guides ages three to five and the first two years of primary school, ages five to seven. The primary principle on which the framework is based is that children have a better learning experience through the first practical experiences that they gain from play and active involvement with other kids. The Foundation Phase Framework emphasizes early literacy, numeracy, and social and individual skills (Senedd, 2022). According to the School Standards and Framework Act of 1998, the local authorities have to oversee the nursery school provision for children at a certain age. Parents are allowed to apply for the provisions immediately after the third birthday of their children. Educational centers that are government-funded are required to abide by the given framework and undergo inspections from the inspector of Education and Training in Wales, by Estyn. The childminders and daycare services in Wales are regulated by the Children and Families (Wales) Measure of 2010. They are required to register with the Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW). In 2016, the age limit to be considered by the childminders and daycare providers was increased from eight to twelve.

The Welsh government has various objectives for the early years’ education program. A program (Taking Wales Forward) launched by the government that ran from 2016-2021 had one of its objectives as increasing the offer of the funded early year education provisions from ten to thirty hours per week and 38 to 48 weeks for the working parents. The program was first implemented by the local authorities in 14 states and spread rapidly across Wales by September 2020. Another plan was to provide more learning centers and an extension of services. Prosperity for All; the national strategy (2017) recognizes the significance of shaping a child’s future, thereby including actions that ensure that children from all backgrounds receive the best start of their lives. The strategy includes plans to create a more responsive system, ensure consistency in delivery and deliver sound parenting support. It is the mission of the Welsh government to improve the education system of Wales by the implementation of the new curriculum, which will be inclusive of children the age of three to sixteen years. The new curriculum is aimed at the development of high-quality education systems and approaches to increasing infant class sizes (Written Statement: Launch of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) approach (24 October 2019) | GOV.WALES, 2022). The curriculum would be launched in 2021 and would replace the Foundation Phase Framework. Among the visions of the Welsh government is to promote a bilingual education language system. Therefore, the government has adopted a Welsh-medium education strategy whose objectives are to increase access to Welsh-medium early years provision and identify parental preferences of the childcare languages.

Early Years education in Scotland

A part-time pre-school education for all children between the age of three and four years is provided in Scotland’s Schools Act of 2000. Some of the two-year-old children are also eligible for this opportunity. The legislation came into effect in 2000. Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) is a program introduced in the Child and Young People Act of 2014. The program was implemented to facilitate the provision of children from the age of zero to the age that they can join the school. The program recognizes the essentiality of early education for children to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for primary and tertiary. 475 to 600 hours of free early education and childcare were provided by the Act for all children from the age of three to four (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). The Act also considered children under the age of two and extended the entitlement. The two-year-old entitlement is only for children under the kinship care order or whose parents qualify for such benefits. The Scottish government has always had the aim of extending the ELC funded hours. The government aimed to extend the hours from 600 to 1140 by 2020, but due to the Covid pandemic, the aim was not accomplished (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022).

The vision of the early learning and childcare initiative in Scotland is to make Scotland the best place to grow up and grant children the best possible start of their life. The ELC has closed the education attainment gap by offering quality early education. ELC has helped the Scottish government to fulfill one of its objectives, which is; the eradication of child poverty. Principles guiding ELC entitlement include quality, flexibility, affordability, and accessibility of the early years’ education system. ‘Realizing the Ambition: Being Me’ is the main program that supports the early development of children from the time they are born. The program is also concerned with the curriculum for excellence for children from three to five. The curriculum caters for two years before joining the school and one year after joining the primary school.

‘Realizing the Ambition: Being Me’ program is based on principles and philosophies adopted by Building the Ambition and Pre-birth to 3 programs. The program retains some of the content and aligns with the current research and learning (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). The program explores the extent of interactions and experiences that babies need to be provided for to help them grow better until they attain the age for primary school. The learning and childcare services are provided by the local authority through nursery classes in primary schools, nursery schools, childminders, private and third care, and children and family centers. The nursery schools serve for 38 weeks per year, whereas the private and third care centers operate throughout the year, following the government requirements. It is the right of any parent in Scotland to defer their child’s entry into primary school if they have not attained five years yet. Proposed legislation that allows for all children who differ to get access funded by ELC is yet to take place in 2023. Scotland’s government is also looking forward to launching a program known as ‘Funding Follows the Child,’ which will neutrally provide funds for children regardless of whether they are in public or private sectors. All staff members must have been registered from the concerned bodies before administering their services. All teachers in Scotland are graduates, and the teacher’s requirements before employment are the same for early childhood education and primary education. The teachers’ educational background provides them with the required professional skills.

Early Years Education in Ireland

Compared to other European countries, Ireland does not have a history of young children attending pre-school services. However, significant improvement has been made towards achieving high-quality Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) recently. Early childhood education in Ireland is offered by trained teachers in primary schools through infant classes. Pre-primary education is optional in the country. The compulsory school age is six years. The education system allows children under the age of four to sign up for infant classes in primary schools where early education is taught (Tusla, 2022). Through the national policy framework for children and young people, the Irish government is looking forward to increasing the investment in high-quality early years education, especially to low-income families.

ECCE was first introduced in 2010. The initiative was established to offer free pre-school years of a proper program and activities for children aged between 3.7 years to 4.4 years during their first years in primary school. The National ECCE policy aims at nurturing and promoting a holistic development and active learning capacity for children under the age of six years through the promotion of a free, joyful, equitable, universal, and inclusive early years education system. Even though the participation is voluntary, statistics show that 95% of eligible children responded positively to the scheme between 2015 and 2016 (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). The program provides children with an early learning experience before joining primary school. The pre-school education program is guided by principles outlined in the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education. The Department of Education and Skills has funded some pre-primary services such as the Early Start Program and Rutland Street Project. Early Start Program runs in the disadvantaged urban areas to ensure that young children succeed in education, while the Rutland Street project runs in Dublin Inner City Community.

Early childhood education is not only provided by the government of Ireland. There exist a diverse range of private, voluntary, and community-funded preschools, daycares, and playgroups (Tusla, 2022). Regulation of early childhood education duties is split between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA). The Siolta Quality Assurance Program ensures that early education mentors have gone through clearly defined self-valuation, quality change, authentication, action planning, and portfolio advancement. Better Start is another program that offers support services of training and advice to early childhood education centers. Early Years Education-focused Inspections (EYEIs) are carried out to improve the quality of and standards of the ECCE program. In 2015, the Early Years Advisory Group was launched to advise the Department of Education on the proper policies to adopt in the future (Early Childhood Education and Care – Eurydice – European Commission, 2022). The body was initiated to also advise on how to strengthen the quality of early years education and its integration into Scotland’s overall education system.

In conclusion, the early years’ education system sets standards for early learning, development, and care of children from birth to the set minimum age across the various countries in the U.K. Children are mostly taught through play and games. In the four countries, the common areas of learning include language and communication, literacy, and physical development. Children are also mentored and directed in paths of personal, social, and emotional development. Basic mathematics is also taught to the children; they learn to count in the languages learned. Children are also made to understand how the world functions. Some teachers and daycare practitioners also use expressive art and design to equip the children with handy skills at such an early age.


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