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?