Evidence of free hours’ benefits is lacking

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Dr Jo Blanden, co-author of a new study on the free early years entitlement, weighs up the evidence


Dr Jo Blanden

A new rigorous analysis of the impact of the free entitlement from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex and the University of Surrey has found disappointing results for educational outcomes, with no measurable benefit of access to free part-time nursery by Key Stage 1.

The free entitlement for three- and four-year-olds was announced in 1998 and became effectively universal in England by 2005. The choice was made to expand free early years education by funding private providers to provide places, rather than provision in schools and local authority nursery schools.

The gold standard of research design is an experiment where some children are randomly assigned free part-time nursery care while others serve as controls. However, the gradual expansion enables us to think of the policy as a ‘natural experiment’. If the free entitlement has an impact on educational attainment, one would expect to be able to link an increase in the number of free part-time early education places available in a particular year in a local authority with an improvement in educational outcomes as the affected children age. This is more robust than looking at how overall trends in school performance change as the policy was introduced, or comparing children whose parents chose to send them to nursery with those who did not attend.

We find that access to free places in the local area has some positive impacts on children’s outcomes in the Foundation Stage Profile at age five, but these are small. For each 10 percentage point increase in places (similar to the average growth of places in a year), scores in the Foundation Stage went up by just a couple of points from their mean of 87 out of a possible 117.

However, this small impact is not surprising when we notice that families’ behaviour did not change much as a result of the policy. Figures from the Department for Education show that while only 37 per cent of children were getting free nursery education (from their local authority) before the policy was introduced, 82 per cent of children were accessing nursery provision privately at that time. For the majority of families the free entitlement did not change their children’s experience; but it switched all (or some, if children attend more than 15 hours) of the cost from parents to the Government. We find that for every four new places funded, only one child went to nursery who would not have gone otherwise. Assuming that these children were the only ones to benefit educationally implies that children who attended nursery because of the policy improved their performance by six FSP points, which is larger, but still not huge. When we look at school outcomes at Key Stage 1 and 2, we can’t find evidence that those with access to free entitlement did better.


The fact that we don’t observe any longer-term impacts of the free entitlement does not imply that high-quality early years’ interventions cannot improve children’s outcomes. In our analysis, we note that children in the PVI sector are unlikely to be taught by a graduate and that graduate provision seems to help children do better at school. However, ultimately we cannot be sure this would have made the difference. It could instead be that schools close small gaps in attainment at age five after a couple of years. Alternatively, it could be that 12.5 or 15 hours of universal nursery education was never going to make a big difference; the most impressive experiments showing long-term positive benefits were for very deprived children who were given access to full daycare from babyhood.

The free entitlement has two objectives: to promote child development and maternal employment. The initial set-up as five half-day sessions made its educational objective clear, but it gradually shifted to longer sessions over fewer days to help working parents, and from September working parents will be able to access 30 hours of free childcare, making the employment focus even clearer. My colleagues are working to understand the impact on employment, which should provide insight into the likely success of the new policy on its own terms. However, given concerns about the sufficiency of funding, we may worry even more about the ability of providers to deliver high-quality care. There is little in the policy to suggest offering 30 hours will dramatically improve the educational impact of the free entitlement.

  • ‘Universal Pre-School Education: The case of public funding with private provision’ is published in the May issue of The Economic Journal and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Nuffield Foundation.
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