Last month, researchers published new findings looking at the impact of the introduction of the free entitlement for three-year-olds on children's development at age five, seven and 11 and on the likelihood of mothers working. The research compares mothers and children in areas with more free entitlement places to those in areas with relatively few.
The most striking finding and one that shapes everything else is that only a small percentage of children accessed childcare because of the free entitlement. About 40 out of every 100 three-year-olds were benefiting from free early education in England before the free entitlement policy was introduced and of the remaining 60 of 100, 50 were using childcare paid for by their parents. For the vast majority, then, the policy did more to help their family finances by shifting costs previously paid by parents onto Government than it did to open up access to childcare.
As a result of this 'dead weight', the impacts on child development and employment are modest and in the case of child development appear to fade out completely by the time the children reach 11. Encouragingly, the impacts are more pronounced for those mothers and children who didn't previously use childcare.
Children who went into early education because of the entitlement do almost 17 per cent better than average on the Foundation Stage Profile, while the gain for children overall is only 0.4 per cent. The free entitlement is estimated to have moved an additional 12,000 mothers of threes into work, but mothers who used childcare only because it was free were 25 percentage points more likely to work.
The fact that the expansion of free places came entirely from the private and voluntary sectors where quality is less good potentially explains some of the lack of impact. However, researchers question whether further extensions of the free entitlement are warranted, if investment in childcare is to address more than the cost of living. It is a tricky question. But it is critical to consider how to make our investments in childcare count.