The introduction of free part-time pre-school places for three year olds in England in the early 2000s led to small improvements in the children''s attainment at age five but with no apparent benefits by the ages of seven and eleven. That is the central finding of a study by researchers from the universities of Essex and Surrey, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and published in the May 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.
Dr Birgitta Rabe and her colleagues argue that the benefits of the programme are few because the expansion of free places largely crowded out privately paid care, with small changes in total participation. What''s more, the expansion was achieved through an increase in private provision, where quality is lower on average than in the public sector. The biggest effect of the government offering free part-time nursery places seems to have been to reduce the cost of childcare for parents.
In 1998, the then Labour government announced that all three and four year olds in England would be entitled to a free part-time nursery place. The availability of free places expanded relatively slowly for three year olds, becoming effectively universal across England by 2005. Analysing the impact on children''s subsequent academic outcomes, the researchers find that:
• Between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of three year olds in England benefitting from a free early education place rose by about 50 percentage points – from 37% to 88%.
• But the number of children benefitting from any kind of formal early education increased by much less: for every four children given a free place, one additional child began to use early education; for the other three children, the policy effectively gave parents a discount on the early education they would have paid to use anyway.
• Overall, the increase in free places improved the outcomes of English children at age five by under two percentage points on average: from a score of 87.5 on the Foundation Stage Profile (FSP) to a score of 89.2.
• Children who took up a free place, who would otherwise have had no pre-school experience, achieved an additional six points in the FSP (assuming that all the benefits of the policy were felt by children who only took up a place because it was free).
• Although there is modest evidence that the policy had a greater impact on poorer children and those learning English as a second language, there is no evidence that the policy helped disadvantaged children to catch up in the longer term. Indeed, there is no evidence of any educational benefits of the policy at the ages of seven and eleven.
Dr Jo Blanden, one of the research team, comments:
''On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education. More than 70% of the children taking up free places would probably have gone to nursery anyway, and children''s test scores do not seem to be any higher in the longer term as a result of the policy.''
''In fact the main benefit of the policy seems to have been to make childcare cheaper for families with three year olds. It is tempting to say that the money should be targeted on the poorest children. But universalism has its benefits in terms of mixing children from different backgrounds and promoting take up''.
''In September, children in some areas will begin to receive 30 hours of free care if their parents are in work. As before, this will save parents money. But unless high quality settings expand capacity, it may not lead to the best educational outcomes for children.''
The free entitlement to early education was initially for 2.5 hours a day (12.5 hours a week) for 33 weeks a year, and it has been expanded so that it now covers 15 hours a week (which can be taken flexibly over fewer days) for 38 weeks a year.
The policy has been estimated to cost around £2 billion a year for England (National Audit Office, 2012), with spending increased by around £800 million in 2014 prices compared with the situation in 1999.
Expansion of free places to 30 hours a week for children of working parents begins in pilot areas in September 2016.
In 2014, a total of 239,700 part-time equivalent places were funded in the maintained sector, and 377,800 in the Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) sector; in 2012, the National Audit Office estimated the average cost per hour to be £3.97 in the maintained sector and £3.77 in the PVI sector.
''Universal Pre-school Education: The Case for Public Funding with Private Provision'' by Jo Blanden, Emilia Del Bono, Sandra McNally and Birgitta Rabe is published in the May 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Jo Blanden and Sandra McNally are at the University of Surrey. Their research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Emilia Del Bono and Birgitta Rabe are at the University of Essex. Their research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at: www.nuffieldfoundation.org