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Surrey research into free nursery places reveals lack of benefits

New research shows that government policy offering free early education entitlement to three-year-olds has delivered limited results.

A report published today reveals that free part-time nursery places for three-year-olds help some children to do better at the end of Reception, but that the overall benefits are small and do not last.

Under government legislation, all three and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 570 hours of early education a year. The research, carried out by the University of Surrey, the University of Essex and the Institute of Education, found that the policy has relatively small benefits for children’s development overall, largely because only a small number of additional children entered early education as a direct result of the policy.

Between 1999 and 2007, the proportion of three-year-olds in England benefitting from a free nursery place rose from 37 per cent to 88 per cent. However, the team found that for every six children given a free place, only one additional child began to use early education. For the other five children, the policy merely gave parents a discount on the early education that they would have paid for in any case.

The analysis focused on children in early education from 2002-2007 in England, relating the local availability of free places at age three to children’s attainment at ages five, seven and eleven. Free nursery places were shown to have a small beneficial impact at age five, but the size of the effect declined by age seven and disappeared by age eleven.

There was modest evidence that the policy had more impact on children from the poorest, most disadvantaged backgrounds, but the research also showed that the policy did not close the gap in attainment between those from richer and poorer families in the longer term.

“On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education,” said Dr Jo Blanden, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Surrey. “More than 80 per cent 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.”

“This might be because the extra pre-school places were not of high enough quality. Alternatively, it could be that primary schools do very well at helping children reach their potential, meaning that pre-school experience has less importance.”

To learn more, read The impact of free early education for three-year-olds in England report.

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