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.

Research has shown that attending early years education and care can help to improve children’s outcomes and narrow the gap associated with socio-economic disadvantage. The UK government, as well as other governments overseas, have consequently made large increases in the number of free hours of early years education available to parents of pre-school children, particularly among disadvantaged groups.

Yet this Nuffield-funded research by Dr Jo Blanden, Professor Sandra McNally and Dr Kirstine Hansen has questioned the overall benefits of universal provision as implemented in England, finding that the positive effects of the roll-out of free entitlement on children’s educational attainment were small and short-lived.

  • 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 four children given a free place, only one additional child began to use early education. For the other three 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 weak relationship between the characteristics if PVI nurseries and children's outcomes was found. Children taught by a highly qualified staff member and those who attended settings rated as Outstanding by Ofsted scored slightly higher on the Foundation Stage Profile. However, the research found there were substantial unexplained differences in outcomes between nurseries.
  • Eligibility for an additional term of free part-time early education results in a zero, or very small, increase in outcomes at age 5, depending on the specification used.

January 2018 seminar

The final report was launched at a seminar convened by the Foundation in January 2018 and Chaired by Professor Anna Vignoles. Participants discussed the implications of the research, specifically:

  • The potential for early years education to close the attainment gaps associated with socioeconomic disadvantage.
  • The importance of quality and challenges around its measurement.
  • How future research might further explore universal provision and how it might best be implemented.

Dr Jo Blanden presented findings from the research, with responses from Michelle Dyson (DfE), Rowena Phair (OECD) and Professor Pedro Carneiro (UCL). Presentations are available to download from this page. 

Project details



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

Dr Kirstine Hansen, Institute of Education

Grant amount and duration:


January 2013 - January 2018