UK: Free Childcare Fails to Have Long-Term Impact

Key Stage 1 learning for UK seven year olds has maintained an unsatisfactory standard, despite the investment of £2 billion into a program that was meant to boost it, says the National Audit Office.

A new National Audit Office report has found that there has been "no improvement" in results for seven-year-olds in recent years, despite the introduction of flagship reforms to give all infants access to weekly nursery sessions, writes Graeme Paton at the Telegraph.

In 2010, the Coalition government expanded the present nursery entitlement scheme by announcing that all three and four-year-olds would be able to claim 15 hours of childcare a week over a "flexible" 38-week period. However, this analysis of the policy, that cost almost £2 billion, has found it to have very little impact.

The report, which showed that one fifth of infants were failing to write to the expected standard and a further 10 per cent are struggling with basic numeracy, says that children's development at the age of seven had shown "almost no improvement since 2007".

And while the quality of the free entitlement programs offered differed significantly between local authorities and only one in five parents do not take up their entitlement.

The report said:

"Although the relationship between the [childcare] entitlement and Key Stage 1 results is not straightforward, the [Department for Education] intended the entitlement to have lasting effects on child development throughout primary school and beyond.

"It is not yet clear, however, that the entitlement is leading to longer-term educational benefits, and the department does not yet have robust measures to demonstrate whether the longer-term benefits it expects are being realized."

Margaret Hodge, the Labour chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, said:

"It is welcome news that almost all children take advantage of free education on offer for under-fives.

"Parents will be concerned that the quality varies so much across the country. It is particularly worrying that areas with high levels of deprivation are less likely to have the best quality for children.

"We will want to explore what the Government proposes to do to ensure that children in deprived areas access high quality early years education."

But Sarah Teather, the Children's Minister, said:

"The earliest years of a child's life are crucial to later development, which is why the coalition Government is determined to invest heavily in this area.

"We are offering more two-year-olds from disadvantaged families the chance to attend nursery school because a huge amount of evidence clearly shows that these children will benefit most from early education.

"We are pleased that the National Audit Office has recognized the progress made since we introduced free early education for three and four-year olds.

"There is lots more to do – and the report also sets out important national and local challenges to be addressed. We are determined to improve the availability of quality places in disadvantaged areas, and offering free early education to around 40 per cent of two-year-olds will help by bringing even more money into the system.

"We also want to examine in more detail how to make sure the significant improvements we are seeing at five feed through into better results at seven.

"We are ambitious for all children, whatever their background. Young children who start school happy, healthy and ready to learn are more likely to live up to their full potential as they get older."

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