The impact of nursery attendance on children's outcomes

This project investigated the impact of nursery education on children's cognitive and social development. It focused on the expansion in nursery education since 1998, which led to free part-time nursery education for 3- and 4-year-olds and a large increase in the number of nursery places.

  • Free part-time nursery places for three-year-olds enabled some children to do better in assessments at the end of Reception, but overall educational benefits are small and do not last.
  • Between 1999 and 2007, the proportion of three-year-olds in England benefitting from a free nursery place rose from 37% to 88%. However, for every six children given a free place, only one additional child began to use early education. For the other five children, the policy gave parents a discount on the early education that they would have paid for in any case.
  • While there was modest evidence that the policy had more impact on the poorest, most disadvantaged children, the policy did not close the gap in attainment between those from richer and poorer families in the longer term.

A parallel research project, undertaken by a different team of researchers, examined how the free entitlement affected mothers' labour market performance.

A briefing note, The impact of free early education for 3 year olds in England, summarises the findings and implications of the two projects.

Full details can be found in the following paper:
Evaluating a demand-side approach to expanding free pre-school education
by Jo Blanden, Emilia Del Bono, Kirstine Hansen, Sandra McNally and Birgitta Rabe.

Project details



Dr Jo Blanden and Professor Sandra McNally, School of Economics, University of Surrey

Dr Kirstine Hansen, Institute of Education

Funding programme:


Grant amount and duration:


1 January 2013 - 30 April 2017