/ Parenting

Free nursery places are about more than education

A report says that free nursery places for three-and four-year-olds aren’t showing any educational benefit by the age of seven. So? There are many other reasons why this scheme benefits parents and pre-schoolers.

Last week a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said that government-funded free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds may not have longer-term educational benefits.

It found that children’s development had improved at the age of five, but by seven it remained unchanged.

Who is benefitting from the scheme?

The scheme gives pre-schoolers 15 hours of education a week for 38 weeks a year. Its take-up rate is impressive, with 95% of all three- and four-year-olds currently in early education, a rate that’s been sustained since 2008 and costs the government £1.9 billion each year.

At this cost, it’s right that the scheme’s effectiveness is being evaluated – and that the government is taking note of the findings. One of the main issues for me was the warning that children from poorer areas are finding it harder to access good quality nursery care than those from wealthier homes – and that their take-up is lower.

Sarah Teather, the Children’s Minister, responded by saying:

‘There is lots more to do. We are determined to improve the availability of quality places in disadvantaged areas, and offering free early education to around 40% of two-year-olds will help by bringing even more money into the system.’

My daughter is currently benefitting from this scheme, as are many of my friends’ children. I say the children are benefitting, but financially of course, it’s parents who benefit. While I wouldn’t class any of my friends as disadvantaged, this is a financial lifeline for most parents I know.

Educational milestones aren’t everything

Childcare is a huge expense. Work full time and you need to pay higher childcare costs for the privilege. Work part time to save on childcare and most of what you earn still goes straight towards the few days of childcare you need. Getting 15 hours’ free gives all parents more choice about how and when to work.

But, to me, sending a child to nursery is about more than having someone to look after your child while you work – and it’s about more than reaching educational goalposts. It’s about children getting interaction, gaining social skills, learning to be independent from parents, trying new activities and generally getting prepared for school.

Last week my daughter learned how to make butter from scratch and then ate it on her toast for tea – an activity she’d never do with us at home. There may not be a direct link between this and better educational standards at the age of seven, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t broadening her outlook.

Yes, standards need to be improved so disadvantaged families have access to the same quality of childcare as others, and I hope this report helps to make strides towards that goal. But let’s not use educational milestones to write off a scheme that helps hundreds of thousands of families nationally. After all, how many of those do you know of?


I’m always amazed that alot of people who have kids have NO real idea how much it costs. I feel sorry for the kids of these parents. Maybe people should open an account and once they’ve got £20k saved in it then start breeding (and £20k want last very long at all, but at least you’d have something put by to help when things get tough). And FYI I think I spent well in excess of £200k getting my daughter to 18 and had no free this and that from the government (the ex got all that). And the spending doesn’t stop there either.

Sophie Gilbert says:
7 February 2012

William has a point. However, once the children are born we can’t abandon them. Our society is thankfully generally better than that.

In the same way as I’m prepared to pay more taxes to subsidise tertiary education in the form of bursaries for those who have passed exams to obtain them and who otherwise couldn’t afford this education, I am prepared to subside childcare for those who can’t afford it so that they can go out and get jobs and be proud of themselves.

Maureen Liu says:
10 February 2012

I am actually surprised to see that some people found it necessary to do this study – isn’t it obvious enough that childcare costs play a big part in determining whether the parents have freedom to choose whether to return to work? A full time nursery place normally costs £800-1300 a month, equivalent to the after-tax income of many parents, and if there are two pre-school aged children in the household, one parent sometimes can’t even afford to go to work – and this tends to be the mother. No offense to the mothers who choose to stay at home and are happy doing so, but women should have the choice to return to work and not hindered by childcare costs – actually compared to the costs of educating these women to their current level and the possible contribution they may make to the economy, savings on state-provided childcare is false economy.

Nicki says:
10 February 2012

I agree with Maureen on this one. Currently I am a working mum with 2 young kids – one of whom is at school, with the other at nursery. I own my own business and pay taxes – but it was a close run thing about whether I should start my business when I did two years ago, because I knew that for the first year at least the childcare costs were likely to outweigh my income after start up costs.
It amazes me that the government are cutting childcare vouchers, and considering cutting the 15 hours pre-school education, as all that will do is make it more and more difficult for mothers to go back to work before their children are at school.
Then to add to this, by this time working mums have been out of the workplace so long it is really difficult to get back into employment. Many of my friends have been in this position and even when they have managed to get back into employment after several years, many of them have had to take much less senior posts on their return – which means they are contributing less to taxes over the long term.
If the government wants to encourage people to work and contribute to the economy (or as in my case also create work for other people) then they should be increasing tax breaks for working parents and certainly not considering getting rid of the free 15 hours per week of childcare (which incidentally is not usually ‘free’ in nurseries (as opposed to pre-schools) as the amount the government pays nurseries does not cover the fees for those 15 hours ).

I suppose im old fashioned but if your going to have children then YOU should look after them not palm them off so someone else can bring them up & educate them. I can hear all you whinging working Mums saying we cant afford not to work Well IMO dont have children then. End of Story.We’ve had enough years now at doing it the working/nursery way & its not working just look at the majority of kids these days Spoilt, Bad Mannered, Bad Tempered individuals with a chip on their shoulders that think the world owes them a living. Lets get back to 1 parent works whilst the other brings up the child. Then the money can go to those who genuinly need it. i.e. single families where one parent has died. Also we should live within our means.

How would these quaint ideas fit in with our modern, materialistic world? Next you will be suggesting that we should not buy luxury items unless we can afford them. No more iPhones for the kids. Not even a Blackberry. What deprivation. Kids that respect adults and even their parents and teachers. Well sometimes. Help for people with a genuine need? You will be suggesting that friends and family could help here, or some similar daft idea.

I agree with you Jane, and having one parent working could help a lot of families where neither parent has a job.