Early childhood education has had little impact on outcomes since the inception of the free entitlement and politicians must now focus efforts on quality

11 January 2018

Authors of a comprehensive study on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) funded by the Nuffield Foundation have called on the Secretary of State for Education to focus on improving the quality of the free entitlement to part time nursery care for 3-year-olds.

Researchers from the University of Surrey, Dr Jo Blanden and Professor Sandra McNally, and University College London, Dr Kirstine Hansen, have completed a comprehensive five-year study on ECEC, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Using administrative data on all children in preschools and the first years of schooling they found that the policy, introduced by the Labour government in 1998, has had little impact on the educational outcomes of children who have participated.

One reason for the lack of effect on educational outcomes is that for every four children given a free place, only one child attended nursery as a consequence of the policy. For the other three, parents were given a discount on ECEC that they would otherwise have paid for without the policy in place. Between 1999 and 2007 the proportion of three year olds in England benefitting from a free nursery place rose from 37% to 88%, but the increase in the proportion of children attending nursery was smaller (from 82% to 96%). The experts also conclude that there is no evidence to suggest that the policy helped disadvantaged children to catch up with their peers in the longer term.

What are the measures of quality? 

The study also found that characteristics in nursery education commonly thought to provide good outcomes for children only offer small benefits. For example, children who went to a private, voluntary or independent nursery, or preschool (PVI) where there is a teacher with a Qualified Teacher Status have an early education foundation stage profile (FSP) score of a third of a point higher (out of a possible 117), compared to those in PVIs that do not.

The experts also found that children who attended a setting rated ‘outstanding’ rather than ‘good’ only scored one point more in the FSP. These two findings imply that more work is needed (by both policy makers and researchers) to discover the features of high quality nursery provision.

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Although this study did not find a significant link between staff qualification and Ofsted ratings and improved educational outcomes, it did demonstrate that there are differences in outcomes between nurseries. The priority for both government and researchers should be to focus on which aspects of children’s nursery experience are linked to educational improvement, so that we can ensure the expansion of free nursery provision is as beneficial as possible.

"The Nuffield Foundation will continue to fund research in this area, both to understand more about what constitutes quality, and to develop and evaluate interventions that can improve children’s outcomes at the earliest stage in their education.”

Dr Jo Blanden, Reader in Economics at the University of Surrey, said:
“Early childhood education and care should be beneficial for children’s later development. The fact that the English policy has not demonstrated benefits raises important questions about how the policy can be improved to deliver the high quality provision that children need.”

Kirstine Hansen, Reader in the Department of Social Science at University College London, said: “Our research asks a very difficult but important question of the government and other policy influencers – what is the aim of early childhood education? While it is clear that it helps parents meet childcare costs, it would be even better if it could be designed to also promote children’s development. This is particularly important as the number of free hours for three-year-olds doubled in September from 15 to 30.”  

See also

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Evaluating the Impact of Nursery Attendance on Children's Outcomes (PDF)

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