SEED: Quality care has benefits at age four

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Spending more time in good-quality settings can positively impact a child’s ability to socialise, empathise with their peers and regulate their own behaviour, find researchers.


The latest SEED study focused on children at age four

  • SEED report finds better outcomes from good ECEC at age four
  • Researchers call for more effort to improve provision quality

The latest findings from the Government-funded Study of Early Education and Development, known as SEED, which looks at children at age four, found the benefits of spending time in good quality early years settings to be similar for children from both the most and least disadvantaged families.

Benefits to children spending more hours in formal group settings, such as day nurseries, nursery schools or classes and playgroups, included better problem-solving skills and ability to analyse information when tested non-verbally through the use of pictures and diagrams.

Those who were cared for by childminders for more hours were found to have fewer emotional difficulties, such as fears and worries. 

The SEED study found a number of other positive impacts to spending more time in good quality settings, they included:

  • Increased hours spent in informal childcare, such as with relatives, neighbours and friends, led to better language development at four years old. The report did not find short-term language benefits of group settings, but language outcomes for children who have started school will be considered in future SEED reports. 
  • Positive outcomes from spending time in group settings were gained even if the child did not have a rich home learning environment. 
  • Children living in more stimulating home learning environments were found to have better cognitive skills along with a better ability to help others, but displayed lower levels of emotional self-regulation.  

However, it also found that a small number of children could be more likely to display poor behaviour. This was found to be restricted to those spending more than 35 hours a week in formal group settings, and generally those from higher-qualified families with existing lower levels of conduct problems. Findings suggest that the behaviour of these children was no different from that of the majority of children using fewer hours in group settings. 

About the report

The Study on early education use and child outcomes up to age 4 is the latest report from the longitudinal Study of Early Education and Development (SEED), which started in 2013 and is following 6,000 children from age two to the end of Key Stage 1. The DfE-funded research is being conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, Action for Children, Oxford University and Frontier Economics.

This report focused on the development of 3,930 children aged two to four. The report’s main objectives were to:

  • look at the development of children aged from two to four and the range of early years provision they receive.
  • investigate the relevance of the home environment and the quality of the parent/child relationship on development at four years old. 
  • study the associations between the quality of the settings that children have attended and development at four years old.

The report states, ‘The study found evidence that attending better-quality childcare settings between ages two and four had a positive impact on some aspects of cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes measured at age four. This indicates the value of high-quality ECEC [early childhood education and care] provision, and suggests that efforts to further improve the quality of provision may be expected to lead to further improved child outcomes.’ 

Researchers were unable to specify the number of hours that would be optimum for a child’s development. This was because of how the data was gathered with hours averaged over two years and with small numbers of children in some time categories.

Future SEED reports will look at whether the pattern of outcomes observed when children are four years old will continue in the longer term. 


Dr Svetlana Speight, research director at the National Centre for Social Research, said, ‘With the continuing increase in Government investment in early years, it is encouraging to see a range of positive outcomes
for children as measured just before they started school in Reception year.’

Commenting on the report, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said that while the debate around what the early years should look like has shifted from a child-focused approach to one more concerned with practitioners’ qualifications and children’s school readiness, the facts remain the same. 

‘The latest findings from SEED’s research are testament to that. It’s pretty clear: children – especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – benefit from high-quality practitioners, not necessarily those with the highest qualifications, and their childcare should address their broader needs as children, rather than fixate on literacy and numeracy,’ he said.

‘With the return of Baseline assessment and headlines about school readiness, we can sometimes lose sight of this. Ministers and other commentators would do well to reflect on this research – and ask if their priorities align with the high-quality, broad early education this report makes clear is best for children.’

Q&A: Professor Edward Melhuishted-meluish

Professor Melhuish (pictured right) is co-author of the SEED report and academic research leader in the Department of Education at Oxford University.

Were you surprised by any of the report’s findings?

'I was surprised by the fact that language development is very much linked to individual care rather than group care. I think this is because in individual care, children get more one-to-one attention. This suggests that group care needs to do more to engage children in one-to-one interactions every day.

'It also found that the range of quality provision has improved in the past 15 years and now there is less poor-quality care. This is seen to be in relation to the qualifications of staff working with children across the board.'

With a current focus on school readiness, does this show that children are being prepared well?

'The study shows that early education and care from two years old upwards supports aspects of children’s language, cognitive and social development, which means that they may be more ready for school than they would be otherwise.'

Should working parents be reassured?

'The research is very reassuring to parents who are using childcare in order to work. There is one negative effect on conduct problems among children who spend more than 35 hours a week in formal group settings, but this affects a very small
number of families, only 120 in 4,000.

'These are children in affluent families with typical very low level of conduct problems which increase to an average level of conduct problems.'

What are the implications for policy-makers?

'The research reinforces the policies that have been passed so far, therefore these policies will be kept. The danger is that if policies are not supported by evidence then they will be changed or removed. It supports the policy for providing free childcare for the 40 per cent of disadvantaged families with two-year-olds, and the Government may even consider extending free provision for all of the two-year-old population because it has been found to be beneficial across the spectrum.'

  • The latest SEED report is available here
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