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The effect of free childcare on maternal labour supply and child development

This research project has been completed. Please contact a team member for further information.

The effect of free childcare on maternal labour supply and child development is the most comprehensive UK study of the causal effect of free childcare on working mothers and on child development.

A joint project between ISER and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and in partnership with the Daycare Trust and the Institute for Public Policy Research, it explores the effects on child development and maternal labour supply of different types of free childcare, available at different ages and, in some cases, for children from different family backgrounds.

Funded by the ESRC’s Secondary Data Initiative, the project is expected to make several contributions to the existing research in this area. In particular, in particular it will:

  • provide new evidence for the UK
  • extend the range of maternal and child outcomes to include previously neglected or unavailable variables
  • analyse the groups of children and mothers that benefit most
  • offer an overview of the external validity of existing estimates

The results will be of immediate relevance for assessing the likely impacts of the planned extension of free nursery entitlement to disadvantaged 2 year olds, and to the continuing debates about whether the free entitlements should be expanded further.


The UK government spends billions of pounds a year to ensure that all 3 and 4 year olds have access to childcare and early education for 15 hours a week, 38 weeks a year.

There is ongoing debate about whether (and by how much) to increase families’ entitlement, as well as a specific plan to extend the entitlement to 2 year olds in England from low-income families. But there is surprisingly little evidence on the causal impact of free childcare.

This project aims to address the gap in understanding by considering whether free provision of childcare affects maternal outcomes other than participation and hours of work, such as working patterns, search behaviour and participation in further education.

It will also look to establish the effects of free childcare provision on a child’s mental and physical development.

Data and methods

By looking at instances where free childcare has been available for some but not all children, the research team will be able to compare the outcomes of children and their mothers who have had access to free childcare to those who have not. This is called a quasi-experimental setting.

These instances are:

  • Geographical and temporal variation in the provision of childcare places across Local Education Authorities in the 1990’s
  • The build-up of universal provision of free childcare for 3 year olds which varied by Local Education Authority in the early 2000’s
  • Entitlement to free childcare for 3 and 5 year-olds which varies according to date of birth

The researchers will look at a wide range of childhood outcomes, including teachers’ assessments of children’s development at age 5, educational attainment at ages 7 and 11, children’s British Ability Scales observed at ages 3, 5 and 7 and Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire scores.

The analysis will be restricted to England, because of sample size and data availability constraints, although wherever possible we will draw comparisons with the situation in Scotland and Wales.

What the researchers will do

The research programme is composed of four projects:

Project A: Pre-school provision for disadvantaged children

Project A will analyse whether the provision of pre-school education targeted at the most disadvantaged families affects maternal labour supply and early childhood educational outcomes.

The project will match data from the School ensus on the number of full-time and part-time pre-school places in maintained nurseries or in nursery classes in primary schools to data from a special license version of the Labour Force Survey (LFS) using geographic identifiers at the LEA level to provide maternal employment outcomes.

The National Pupil Database (NPD) provides Key Stage 1 test scores from 1997/98 and Key Stage 2 test scores from 1995/96. The large sample size will enable the team to focus their analysis on more deprived areas by matching school location to indices of area deprivation.

Project B: Universal pre-school provision

The main objective of this analysis is to understand whether universal provision of pre-school education affects maternal and child outcomes.

The team will use maternal outcomes from Project A. They will analyse child outcomes using both Foundation Stage Profile (FSP) scores and Key Stage 1 test scores. This will provide physical and emotional outcomes as well as educational.

Project C: Access to free part-time or full-time childcare

This project examines mothers of children born before and after the three cut-off points governing access to free part-time childcare for 3 year olds and compares their employment and labour force participation status, as well as their working patterns, search behaviour and participation in further education in the following term.

The team will also analyse the labour supply of mothers of four year old children born either side of the August 31st cut-off point.

The large sample size offered by the LFS will allow separate analyses for different subgroups of the population, for example lone and partnered mothers and by socio-economic status.

Project D: Differences in the amount of pre-school education received

This project examines whether children potentially exposed to a different period of time in pre-school (up to one term) – but who start school in the same year and at the same age – experience differences in early educational outcomes.

Data from the National Pupil Database combined with the Millennium Cohort Study, which provides information on British Ability Scales (BAS) measured at ages 3, 5 and 7, and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) on pro-social behaviour, hyperactivity, emotional, conduct and peer problems, also measured at ages 3, 5 and 7.


  1. Early interventions and children’s educational attainment. Evaluating the impact of free part-time pre-school education for 3 year olds in England

  2. The impact of free, universal pre-school education on maternal labour supply

  3. Universal pre-school education: the case of public funding with private provision

  4. Briefing note


Childcare policy - has it had any impact?

Dr Birgitta Rabe talks about new research looking at the impact of recent childcare policies on children's educational outcomes and helping mothers into work.


Universal pre-school childcare, maternal employment and child outcomes: what can we learn from other countries?

Date: May 8 2013
Time: 10-4
Venue: British Academy, London

Team members

Professor Mike Brewer

Professor of Economics, Director of MiSoC - ISER - University of Essex

Dr Claire Crawford

Senior Research Fellow - Institute for Fiscal Studies

Professor Emilia Del Bono

Professor of Economics - ISER - University of Essex

Dr Birgitta Rabe

Senior Research Fellow - ISER - University of Essex

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Photo credit: methyl_lives