The Institute of Education concludes that universal pre-school education raises standards and leads to greater equality in how well children do at school.
The study also concludes that while all social groups benefit from pre-school provision, children from the poorest families gain the most from universal provision.
They say that this is because in the UK, and most other countries, it is the poorest children and those from immigrant backgrounds, who have traditionally been less likely to receive free pre-school education.
The research will lend force to the argument that universal access to free early education places for three-and four-year-olds most be preserved in the face of cost-cutting pressures.
Ofsted has recently called for funding to be targeted at the poorest children and claimed that the current system of universal access to free nursery places is not working in closing the attainment gap.
Researchers analysed the test scores of more than 12,000 pupils in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who took part in the 2009 PISA reading assessment. The test was conducted by the OECD and was taken by pupils in 482 UK schools.
Just over half of pupils in the bottom socio-economic group had attended pre-school education, compared with 73 per cent in the most advantaged group.
The researchers also predict that the plan to increase the free entitlement to early education to 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds from September 2013 - and a further 130,000 the following year - will have a knock-on effect in raising children’s literacy scores at the age of 15, as well as reducing educational inequalities between children from different social backgrounds.
The study’s authors Dr Tarek Mostafa and Professor Andy Green said, ‘We expect that this rise in free provision for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will increase their literacy attainments at age 15 and will reduce inequalities in educational performance scores between children from different social backgrounds.
‘It will help to develop children’s cognitive skills at the formation stage before they become resistant to change.’
The authors also compared the scores of English pupils with those of the their Swedish counterparts and found that effects of universal pre-school provision had a very similar impact.
The researchers say this finding is significant because it shows that the more children access pre-school education the greater educational equality.
They also calculated that in both England and Sweden the gaps in literacy scores between different social classes could have been minimised if all children (except the 30 per cent of the most advantaged) had been offered high-quality pre-school provision, although they acknowledge that such a strategy would be socially divisive.
Universal provision would help maintain solidarity between all social groups and be a fairer system, with cost the only disadvantage.
‘We decided to compare two countries which are supposed to be very different in terms of their approach to education to see whether the effects of universal pre-school education would be similar,’ the researchers said.
‘Surprisingly, they are – both in terms of raising national averages and in helping to equalise educational outcomes. The latter finding is, in a sense, especially significant as it has not been clear until now that high participation rates lead to more equal educational outcomes. This study confirms that they do.’
The authors also point out that a more equal distribution of skills and qualifications is linked to more equal incomes, leading to wider social benefits, such as better public health and lower crime rates.
- Mostafa, T. and Green, A. (2012) Measuring the Impact of Universal Pre-School Education and Care on Literacy Performance Scores, is published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES), an IOE research centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.