Misleading BBC headline rubbishes free nurseries

The BBC News website has just run an article under the heading: Free nursery places ‘make no academic difference’. Public interest is ill served by such casual misreading of research and the use of sensationalist headlnes.

The research cited by the BBC did not say that. It did not even set out to investigate such a general claim. Its research question was specific: whether the money spent on providing 12.5 hours for every 3 year old might have been better spent.

Jo Blanden and colleagues show that most 3-year-olds already attended nursery before 2005 when the new rules were introduced. 37% were in council nurseries or nursery classes in schools: this has not increased. Parents paid for the 44% in private nurseries: this is now state-subsidised through the free 12.5 hours, and the numbers have increased to 58%. So it is the private sector which has expanded through the free places.

Blanden’s study uses an oblique method to estimate the cost benefits, not by tracking individual children but by relating overall changes in nursery attendance (the extra 14% of 3-year-olds) to overall changes in school attainment, and extrapolating from differences between areas with more or fewer council places and where the take-up of the 12.5 happened faster or slower.

Blanden certainly argues that the universal 12.5 hours entitlement is an expensive way of improving attainment for disadvantaged pupils, if that is its main aim. However, she also says clearly that one reason why they found little benefit was “because the places created in the PVI [private, voluntary and independent] sector were not of sufficiently high quality.”

In an article she wrote for the Telegraph, she says:

“All the new places created by the policy were in private nurseries, playgroups and private-preschools – those where they are less likely to be taught by a qualified teacher or early years professional. There is a case here for looking more closely at how state-funded nursery is delivered. Is it right for the state to prop up some private places with lower standards?”

Other research has shown that private nurseries in poorer areas are more likely to be of low quality. This is linked to inadequate staff qualifications: they are unlikely to have a qualified teacher in charge, and many of their other staff have low qualifications. Consequently these nurseries tend to lack the professional leadership to make a decisive difference to counter disadvantage.

In other words, the real issues are (1) private vs public provision; (2) staff qualifications.

Oxford professor Kathy Sylva’s comments in Nursery World (5 Nov 2014) are sharp and to the point:

“Several decades of international research has shown that early childhood education reduces the gaps in attainment between rich and poor children – but only if it is of high-quality… The NPD sample (Blanden et al, 2014) included many more children in the PVI sector, used coarse ‘levels’ as outcome, and had no measures of quality of provision.”

The major study which Professor Sylva has led over many years, EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-School Education, now renamed EPPSE to include the impact through the secondary years) tracked provision and achievement for actual children. It demonstrated the long-term impact of high-quality nursery provision on GCSE results and social development at age 16. Kathy Sylva argues that the Pupil Premium should now be used to employ better qualified staff.

Some politicians would doubtless love to sacrifice the free-hours entitlement on the altar of austerity. Even if subsidising childcare were its main benefit, that would still be of value: parents in England pay far more than many other European countries. But rather than looking for more austerity cuts, the next government needs to bring early education under local authority control and ensure that nursery staff are well paid and well qualified for the important job they do.

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