Universal benefits?

A decade after the introduction of free part-time early education places for three-year-olds in England, two studies show that the policy had only modest effects on children’s development and mothers’ work.

Dr Birgitta Rabe’s research found that making free places for three-year-olds available increased school assessment scores at age five by around four per cent compared to no funding, but these effects faded quickly and no benefit remained at age 11.

Although the free places had slightly more impact on poorer children and those learning English as a second language, there is no evidence that the policy helped disadvantaged youngsters to catch up, suggesting that it did not close the gap in attainment between those from richer and poorer families. Regarding impact on the labour market, the policy encourage very few more mothers to go back to work, with around three more mothers in the labour force for every 100 funded places.

Mixed results

The main reason the policy had little impact was that it did not significantly change a parent’s use of childcare. Eighty-two per cent of three-year-olds were already in centre-based childcare before the free entitlement came into effect in 1999. Additionally, the studies point out that the quality of newly-provided places might not have been high enough to improve child development, while the flexibility in terms of hours offered was not tailored to parents’ employment needs.

The results of this research project suggest that the current approach is not delivering long-run gains in children’s cognitive development, while increasing – but not transforming – the labour market attachment of mothers of young children.