Free childcare doesn’t help children’s educational development

A new briefing highlights that free childcare is unlikely to improve children’s educational performance in later years unless significant money is invested in improving its quality.



Policies which expand provision of ‘free’ childcare are unlikely to improve children’s educational outcomes, according to a new election briefing.

A study from the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance found that childcare extensions may help working parents, but they do very little to improve children’s later performance at school.

It says this will only improve with significant investment in improving the quality of provision.

It cites research showing that the initial roll-out of 12.5 hours of free part-time education and care for three year olds in the early 2000s (which subsequently was expanded to 15 hours) had a minimal effect on children’s educational achievement. It says this is in large part because most children were attending similar provision before it became government funded, so their ability to access early education did not change much.

However, another study cited in the report shows that, even if policy is able to increase attendance, only high quality provision has a measurable effect on outcomes: spending more months receiving early education substantially improves child development only when the child attends an Ofsted rated ‘Outstanding’ setting.

Nevertheless, the report recognises that childcare is not just about educational attainment and says on other scores, such as maternal employment and easing family finances, the expansion of free childcare is having an impact.

The briefing’s central point is that the UK’s major education weakness is the long tail of poorly performing schools and pupils who find difficulty getting good quality jobs on leaving school.

Several parties are pledging to increase spending on ‘free’ childcare as part of their election manifestos. Labour says it will provide 30 hours per week of free care to all children aged between two and four.

The Lib Dems have promised working families 35 hours of free childcare for 48 weeks of the year from when their children hit nine months and the Conservatives say they will provide a £1bn fund for wraparound care.

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Jo Blanden, reader in economics at the University of Surrey and a research associate at CEP, said: “The evidence shows that policies to expand provision of free childcare have eased family finances for working parents but have not been very successful in improving children’s educational outcomes. To have effects on children’s educational outcomes, there would need to be a focus on the quality of provision, which would require substantial investment.”

The LSE report also says that policies such as the academy schools programme have not been successful
for the most part in improving educational outcomes and calls instead for a focus on the recruitment
and retention of high quality teachers.

And it says a policy of free or no tuition fees for higher education students – promised by Labour – would disproportionately benefit those who go on to higher-paying jobs.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said:If the next government is serious about child development, then they need to think beyond what works at the ballot box and start putting our youngest children first. That doesn’t just mean increasing funding levels, it also means being certain about the support they’re offering and how it targets those who need it most.”

The Alliance is worried that the election has become too dominated by pledges to increase free childcare rather than sorting out the underfunding of the current offer and other challenges facing the sector. It points out, for instance, that figures out this week show significant regional variations with regard to the quality of childcare, for instance, the percentage of childcare providers achieving a ‘good’ level of childcare outcomes varies from 63.1% in Middlesbrough, the lowest ranking local authority, to 80.6% in Richmond upon Thames, the highest.

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