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Is free pre-schooling proving a bad deal for all?

The British government provides free part-time pre-school places in order to improve the prospects of disadvantaged kids and to provide some support for families so that mothers can work. But is this expensive policy delivering on its promises?

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Since 2000, successive UK governments have identified pre-school provision as a means of getting more mothers into the workplace and improving educational attainment for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This well-meaning cross-party consensus doesn't come cheap, with the National Audit Office estimating in 2012 that the policy of providing 15 hours of free nursery education for three and four-year-olds was costing the Treasury £2bn per year.

Given this outlay, surprisingly little research has been carried out to check whether the policy is having the desired effects. Recent work by Dr Jo Blanden (Deputy Head of the School of Economics at the University of Surrey) and Professor Sandra McNally (also in the School of Economics) suggests that it may not be.

Surprisingly little research has been carried out to check whether the policy is having the desired effects

In their research paper ('Universal Pre-School Education: The Case of Public Funding with Private Provision'), Dr Blanden and colleagues identify a small general improvement in educational attainment at age five related to increased provision of free pre-school places. However, this effect disappears by age eleven.

The paper notes that children of families from lower socio-economic backgrounds did show increased participation in formal pre-schooling (thus freeing up working time for mothers), but that most of the subsidy actually contributed to 'crowding out' of privately funded childcare (which is to say that places previously paid for by parents or from other private pockets were now paid for by the taxpayer). In the period examined, only 2.7 new pre-school places were created for every ten places funded, so it is unsurprising that educational achievement improved only slightly and temporarily.

Places previously paid for by parents or from other private pockets were now paid for by the taxpayer

Furthermore, all the new pre-school places that did appear were created in the private sector, which is subject to less regulation in England than publicly provided childcare. With fewer qualified teachers in private settings, the failure of the policy to achieve permanent increases in educational attainment may also be explained by lower quality of provision than in countries that have followed similar policies but  directed more funds towards the public sector.

“While previous research has suggested that early education is key to long term attainment, our research has shown that the free entitlement did not deliver the anticipated gains,” said Dr Blanden.

“On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education. More than 80% of the children taking up free places would probably have gone to nursery anyway, and the policy had no educational benefits in the longer term.

"Our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education" - Dr Jo Blanden, School of Economics

"This might be because the extra pre-school places were not of high enough quality. Recent research shows that state-run nurseries are of more consistent quality, whereas this policy encouraged greater use of privately run places. More positively, it could be that primary schools do very well at helping children reach their potential, meaning that pre-school experience is not important.”

The analysis provided by this paper is particularly relevant in the context of the newly announced policy of extending the free entitlement to 30 hours for children whose parents are working. This will provide much-appreciated financial assistance to working families with children, but the impact on children’s learning is less clear.

Indeed, unless high-quality pre-school providers expand their capacity substantially, increasing free provision to 30 hours for some children may reduce access to high-quality provision for other groups.

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