Free places research: lessons to be learned

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An independent review of childcare funding is needed to make sure the free offer works well, says Jill Rutter of the Family and Childcare Trust

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As recently covered in Nursery World, new research released in October looked at the impact of the free early education offer on child development. The press release issued alongside the research was ominously titled ‘Free childcare for 3 year olds: no long term benefits for child development’. Seemingly, the early education offer is not working very well.

As is often the case, the spin for journalists is a step removed from the findings of the research itself. The researchers looked at the impact of the introduction of the early education offer on children’s developmental outcomes in the years 2001 to 2007. The conclusions of the research were certainly bracing: the early education offer had only a small impact on educational outcomes at age 5 and 7, and none at all at age 11. As an intervention designed to improve educational outcomes, it is hard to see the free offer in its present form as a success.

The researchers offer several explanations for their findings. The first is that most children were already in childcare when the offer was introduced, so free childcare mainly had the effect of providing a new subsidy to parents rather than increasing participation in childcare. The second is that the free offer has not delivered enough high quality childcare to improve outcomes. The researchers add the policy may also have effects on children’s development that only become apparent in later life, such as improved ‘non-cognitive’ social skills.

The research confirms what many early education professionals already knew or suspected. The evidence is that early education is only likely to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children when it is sustained, high quality and complemented by interventions such as health visitors, parenting support and employment support for parents. Very few disadvantaged children and their families are consistently receiving services that meet all of these criteria. Until that changes, we are unlikely to see notable positive outcomes from the free offer.

A second research paper published by a number of the same team last month looked at the effect of free childcare on maternal employment. Once the offer was fully rolled out in 2008, an estimated 12,000 mothers whose youngest child is aged three, or three per cent of this group, took up work each year when their child entered early education. It is notoriously difficult to shift employment outcomes through public policy, but even so these figures warrant caution about the effectiveness of the free offer in supporting parents to work. More positively, mothers who took up the offer because it was free (rather than replacing childcare they would have paid for anyway) were 25 per cent more likely to move into work.

The message delivered by this research should be welcome. While free early education is an important income subsidy for parents purchasing pre-school childcare, the offer is not achieving two of its core aims as effectively as it should. Politicians and policy makers must not blindly pursue extensions to the free offer without first considering how to ensure the current offer works well. It might, for example, be more effective to invest in higher quality, in childcare services that operate for longer hours or are more flexible, or in improved affordability through targeted support with childcare costs.

The Family and Childcare Trust has been aware of these issues for some time and has called for an independent review of childcare funding to help makes sense of the present system and make recommendations on reform and long term investment in childcare. For politicians under pressure to address childcare costs, it is tempting to reach for the simple answer of extending the free offer.

Whatever government is in place next May, this research should leave ministers in no doubt that getting childcare policy right for children and families requires more care and design than this approach.

Jiill Rutter is head of policy and research at the Family and Childcare Trust

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