Study suggests free places have no benefit, but warns against scrapping them

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A new study suggests free early education places have no long-term benefit on children’s attainment, but its authors argue that taking away the entitlement would do more harm.

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Research says many children would have gone to nursery anyway

Researchers found that 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. However, by the age of seven the size of the effect declined, and at age 11 it disappeared.

Children who took up a free place and who otherwise would not have attended a pre-school setting fared slightly better on their Foundation Stage Profile results. However, the gap in attainment between children from richer and poorer families did not close in the long term.
The findings also indicated that more than 80 per cent of children using funded places would have attended nursery anyway.

The study, carried out by the University of Surrey and University of Essex along with the Institute of Education, is based on observations of 1.2 million children who took up their place at age three from 2002 to 2007.

The researchers say that on the face of it the results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education, but that taking away the free childcare places would be more damaging as it would increase how much parents have to pay for early education.
It would also make it less likely that children from different backgrounds would be mixing in the same early education settings.

The study’s findings, which have received a mixed reaction, contradict those of the Effective Pre-School Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project that found early education is key to long-term attainment.

EPPSE, which tracked the lives of more than 3,000 children from the age of three, found that attending any pre-school, compared to none, led to better grades at GCSE. While both studies have similarities in that they tracked the future outcomes of children who attended pre-school, the researchers of the new study argue that they should not be directly compared.

They say EPPSE was carried out before the free entitlement was implemented, and the long-lasting effects of pre-school on children’s attainment only applied to those who attended the best performing nurseries.

They say the fact that their research shows that positive impacts on children do not persist may be because the places created in the private, voluntary and independent sector were not of sufficiently high quality.

However, Edward Melhuish, who led the EPPSE project, is among those that have cast doubt on the reliability of the new findings. He said, ‘The study is based on inadequate data on the pre-school histories of children. It also lacks specific data on the quality of pre-school settings and used inadequate outcome measures that were too coarse to be sensitive to effects when there is no control for the quality of pre-school.’

One of the authors of the new study, Dr Jo Blanden, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Surrey, defended he findings. She said, ‘Our method was robust and the approach we took was better as it took into account the geographical roll-out of the free places. Our other paper, which has yet to be published, considers if when children become eligible for a free place impacts upon their long-term attainment.

‘Unlike EPPSE, which looked at the effect of nursery as a whole, we looked at just early education places. We decided not to focus on the quality of settings and the impact on children’s attainment as we wouldn’t be able to measure if a good score was as a result of a child’s intelligence or a nursery’s provision.’

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