Researchers also said the findings cast doubt on the value of universal early education places because they claim more than 80 per cent of children using funded places would have attended nursery anyway.
While taking up a free place led to children achieving better than average Foundation Stage Profile scores at age five, from 87.5 to 89.3, researchers found that by age seven the size of the effect declined and at age 11 it disappeared.
However, the study also found that children who took up a free place, who would otherwise have not attended a pre-school setting, achieved an extra 15 points on their Foundation Stage Profile results. Despite this, the gap in attainment between children from richer and poorer families did not close in the long term.
The research, carried out by the University of Surrey, University of Essex and the Institute of Education (IOE), is based upon observations of 1.2 million children who took up their early education place at age three from 2002-2007.
The findings go against previous research, which has suggested that early education is key to long-term attainment, says Dr Jo Blanden, senior lecturer at the University of Surrey.
‘On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education. More than 80 per cent of the children taking up free places would probably have gone to nursery anyway, and the policy had no education benefits in the longer term.’
While between 1999 and 2007 the proportion of three-year-olds in England taking up their free place rose from 37 per cent to 88 per cent, the researchers found that for every six children eligible for a place, only one additional child took advantage of the policy. For the other five children, it meant parents did not have to pay as much for childcare that they would have paid for in any case.
Dr Blanden said another reason children may not have benefited in the long term from taking up their early education place could be because the setting they attended was not high enough quality.
Alternatively, she claimed that it could be that primary schools do very well at helping children reach their potential, meaning that pre-school experience is not important.
Dr Brigitta Rabe, senior research fellow at the Institute for Education added, ‘It is tempting to say the money would have been better spent on the poorest children. However, the policy’s universalism may have benefits if it encourages greater take-up of provision among children from more disadvantaged backgrounds or if it mixes children from different backgrounds in the same early education settings.’
A parallel project, undertaken by a different team of researchers, which examined how the free entitlement affected mothers’ labour market performance, found that for every 100 funded places provided, around six more mothers worked.
The authors of both studies conclude by saying that the current approach to the free places for three-year-olds is not delivering ‘long-run gains’ in children’s cognitive development, and is increasing, but not transforming, mothers’ decisions to work.
They argue that the case for extending the free entitlement is not as clear cut as political rhetoric might suggest, and call for a more open and honest debate about the rationale for these policies, and whether evidence supports the proposed extensions.
Sam Gyimah, education and childcare Minister, said, 'Before they have even worn their school uniform for the first time, a child's life chances are being decided. Early education not only sets a child off on the right foot at school but, as the extensive research including the most recent report from EPPSE published last month shows; it has effects that last right into the workplace.
'We know that parents value the early education entitlement which is why 97 per cent of three and four year olds in England — nearly 1.3 million children — are taking up their early education place.
'No child should start school behind their peers. This is why as part of our plan for education we are committed to providing flexible, affordable and good quality childcare, giving parents more of a choice about where they can send their children, so that they can get the best start in life.'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance (PLA), said, 'It is important to note that these findings suggest the introduction of free early education places had a limited impact on outcomes, largely because most children accessing places would have done so anyway, even if the places were not free. This is not the same as saying that early education itself has a limited impact, and should not be misinterpreted as such.
'In fact, the research found that for those children who otherwise would not have accessed any early education, the provision of places through the free entitlement scheme had a notably positive impact.
'We are surprised, however, by the suggestion that this positive impact becomes less evident in the long term, and it should be noted that this contradicts a wealth of existing research which has found that the opposite is true: most notably the recent EPPSE study which concluded that early years provision has ‘enduring benefits’ for those children that attend, including better outcomes at GCSE and greater earning potential in the longer term.'
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries said, 'IFS says the free early education policy effectively gives parents a discount on early education and childcare they would have paid for anyway, but it is important not to dismiss how vital this support is as families work with even tighter financial budgets.
'With increasing demands on the family income only those in the highest pay brackets do not feel the value a 15 hour free place gives them to balance work and home. All children irrespective of their background and family budget will benefit socially from mixing, playing and learning together. This value is clearly recognised by all political parties who have all placed childcare and investing in the expansion of free places high on their agendas.
'The overall benefits of politicians giving as many children and families as possible the chance to access high quality early education and childcare will be felt by society as a whole. The essential task now is to ensure the funding system is fit for purpose with the money invested specifically for early education ringfenced so it all reaches the frontline.'