Has free childcare helped children and mothers?

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. However, until now there has been little evidence of the impact of the policy. Duncan Lugton comments on the findings of a major new report which provides, for the first time, evidence on how free education has impacted on children and their mothers.

Photo credit: Emily Goldstein

Since it was first announced for four year olds in the 1990s, the provision of free early education for children has been high on the political agenda, and the offer has been expanded several times: to all 3 year olds, to a greater number of hours and finally to the 20% most disadvantaged 2 year olds. Extensions of the free early education offer have also featured in recent policy pledges from several political parties.

The offer represents the most significant investment in childcare in England, with an estimated £1.9 billion a year spent on free early education for three and four year olds. The findings of two new research projects give a clearer picture of the impact of the policy on child development and maternal employment.

For those of us working on childcare policy, the new report represents some of the most significant research to come out in recent years, shedding light on how effective the policy has been.

To date, there has been no other research produced on the impact of this policy on maternal employment, so this represents a significant addition to our knowledge. This research should facilitate a better and more sophisticated discussion of childcare policy, and presents a real opportunity to produce better, more effective policy going forward.

Findings and implications

Before the policy was introduced, 40 per cent of three year olds in England were receiving some other form of free education and about 45 per cent were receiving paid-for early education. The research found that relatively few three year-olds actually entered early education because of the policy: many were either already benefitting from free early education provided by local authorities and schools or were already attending paid-for early education.

The overall developmental impact of expanding the free entitlement to three year olds seems to have been fairly small. The policy improved the outcomes of English children at age five by two per cent on average (measured in Foundation Stage Profile point scores), but this improvement faded away over time. It was smaller for seven year olds and no benefit was detectable for 11 year olds.

However, the research found that the policy contributed to increases in maternal employment, with about six more mothers in work for each 100 free early years places funded. This is impressive given the relatively limited number of childcare hours provided and the initial lack of flexibility regarding how those hours were used.

The benefits seem to be particularly strong for mothers who only took up early education because it was free: the research suggests that these parents were 25 percentage points more likely to work because of the free entitlement. Improved levels of employment for this group should be welcomed, with more mothers able to take home a wage and fewer demands being placed on the public purse in terms of benefits and support.

Where next?

This new research is an extremely important addition to our understanding of the difference that early education has been making and we hope it will allow for more informed policies and discussion going forward. That more women are getting in to work as a result of this policy is an extremely welcome result for those families, the government and the country as a whole.

To build on the policy’s success in the area of maternal employment, the free offer could be made more flexible, and to improve the developmental outcomes for children, improvements to the quality of provision could have a real impact.

These new findings should be a prompt for reflection, discussion, and hopefully further research. Any policy proposals related to early years provision stand to gain from this research, and, ultimately this will mean better outcomes for parents, children, and the UK as a whole.

Further information and useful links

With funding from the ESRC through its Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, and the Nuffield Foundation, Jo Blanden (University of Surrey), Emilia Del Bono (University of Essex), Kirstine Hansen (Institute of Education), Sandra McNally (University of Surrey) and Birgitta Rabe (University of Essex) investigated the impact of free early education on children’s development.

With funding from the ESRC through its Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, Mike Brewer (University of Essex and IFS), Sarah Cattan (IFS), Claire Crawford (University of Warwick and IFS), and Birgitta Rabe (University of Essex) investigated the impact of free early education on mothers’ work patterns


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