The study of 1.8 million children born between September 2003 and August 2006, reveals that a child’s educational achievement at the end of their reception year is only ‘slightly’ higher if he or she has been taught in nursery by a qualified teacher or Early Years Professional (EYP).
It also found that attending a nursery rated outstanding by Ofsted had limited benefits.
The study concludes that the quality of a setting does not just rest on the qualifications of staff and Ofsted rating - often used as indicators of quality by the Government.
Researchers from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, the University of Surrey and University College London, matched data on children’s outcomes at the end of reception with information on nurseries attended in the year before starting school.
Data was taken from the National Pupil Database (used when children start school) and the Early Years Census, which has data on two-, three -, and four-year-olds taking the free entitlement (including PVI settings).
Half of the children accessed nursery provision in a school and were taught by a qualified teacher. The other half attended nurseries and pre-schools in the private, voluntary and independent sector, but less than a third of settings employed a teacher or Early Years Professional (EYP).
The researchers also compared Ofsted inspection results. One in ten of the children attended an outstanding nursery, two-thirds were in a setting rated good, one in five attended a ‘satisfactory’ setting (now replaced by ‘requires improvement’) and two per cent were in a setting rated as ‘inadequate’.
They found that while children who attend an outstanding nursery or one employing a graduate do better, the effects are ‘extremely’ small. Children who were in settings with a graduate scored one third of a point higher on their teacher assessment (EYPS). Those who attended an outstanding setting moved up less than one level on just one of the 13 scales that make up the Foundation Stage (now the Early Years Foundation Stage) at age five.
The researchers conclude that the commonly used measures of quality of nursery provision in England do not explain the variation in children’s outcomes at school.
Jo Blanden, senior lecturer in Economics at the University of Surrey and co-author of the study, said, ‘Successive governments have focused on improving staff qualifications, based on the belief that these are important for children’s learning. Our research finding that having a member of staff qualified to graduate level working in the nursery has only a tiny effect on children’s outcomes surprised us, given existing research that finds well qualified staff have higher quality interactions with children.
‘It is possible that our results are partly a consequence of the types of qualifications held by those working in private nurseries, as these are not generally equivalent to the qualifications of teachers in nursery classes in schools.
‘Some nurseries are helping children to do better than others, but this is not related to staff qualifications or Ofsted ratings.
‘It is extremely important to discover the factors that lead to a high-quality nursery experience so we can maximise children’s chances to benefit developmentally from attending nursery, particularly as the Government extends the entitlement from 15 to 30 hours.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We have long argued that quality early years provision is about more than just staff qualifications and so we welcome this report, which challenges many of the assumptions underpinning current early years policy.
‘While it is of course vital that early years practitioners know how best to support early learning, simply being a graduate is not enough to ensure that this is the case – experience, a caring demeanour and, crucially, an in-depth understanding of child development are all equally vital to ensuring that children get the best possible start in life.
‘We hope this research will end the widespread misconception that private and voluntary providers are of lower quality than maintained settings simply because they are less likely to employ graduate staff members, and prompt further research and debate into what "quality" in the early years actually means.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'High-quality early education is vital to helping young children achieve their full potential. There are already a record number of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ and the proportion of children reaching the expected learning and development standards continues to rise.
'We are investing a record £6 billion per year by 2020 in childcare and creating a workforce strategy to help attract, retain and develop the very best staff to the sector. Latest results show the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their counterparts is narrowing.'