Free nursery places ‘make no academic difference’

The BBC is reporting research that suggests sending three year old children to nursery may not make any difference to their academic results later on…

£800m has been spent annually on free places for three-year-olds since 1998.

Researchers say the main benefit has been to make childcare cheaper for families with young children.

They conclude that while the policy may have encouraged more mothers to return to work, there was no long term effect on children’s academic development.

The studies were carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Essex and Sussex universities…

The studies go on to say that overall, the increase in free places improved the results of English children at the age of five by two percentage points on average.

Although there is modest evidence that free places had more impact on poorer children and those learning English as a second language, there is no evidence that it helped disadvantaged youngsters to catch up, the researchers conclude,

They also found no evidence of educational benefit at the age of seven and at 11.

Jo Blanden, of Surrey University, said that “on the face of it”, the results seemed to question whether the policy had proved to be value for money…

“It is tempting to say that the money would have been better spent on the poorest children.

“However, the policy’s universalism may have benefits if it encourages greater take-up of provision among children from more disadvantaged backgrounds or if it mixes children from different backgrounds in the same early education settings.”


I haven’t been able to find a copy of the research yet – anyone have a link?


What do you make of the apparent findings here? A financial benefit, but little impact on academic outcomes or closing the gap. Would a targeted approach be better? Please give us your feedback in the comments or via Twitter…


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  1. andylutwyche

    SchoolsImprove It has enabled people to afford childcare though, if they want it of course. This study could be govt’s excuse to cut it

  2. JeniHooper

    SchoolsImprove take up of early years provision has been so wide spread it is unclear where the comparison group was found.

  3. Nor_edu

    SchoolsImprove it’s a Q of the ‘family’ – what do we value more; parents at work of parents bringing up their children?

  4. Terry Wrigley

    Sorry but I think it’s really misleading just to quote BBC News like this. The original report does show that, before this policy, a third of children had free places but these were local authority provided. The increase has been entirely private sector nurseries. Other research shows greater likelihood that private nurseries are of lower quality, and that only high quality nurseries (which is also linked to staff qualifications) make lasting improvement. 
    See Kathy Sylva’s comment in Nursery World

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