The Department for Education (the Department) wants all three and four year olds to receive high quality early years education. The primary purpose of this education is to support children's development. To achieve this goal the Department provides funding for local authorities to pay for three and four year olds to receive their entitlement to 15 hours of free education each week (the entitlement). The Department devolves delivery to local authorities and providers but it is responsible for the overall value for money from the system.
In 2011-12 the Department's estimated funding for the entitlement of £1.9 billion provided over 800,000 three and four year olds with access to free education; an estimated annual allocation of approximately £2,300 per child. The Department, working alongside local authorities and providers, should be commended for the work done over the past decade to increase the provision of early years education.
While the Department and local authorities have focused on ensuring places for children are available, there has been less attention on how value for money can be secured and improved. We are concerned that the Department has, as yet, done very little to understand the costs and outcomes in different local authorities and has not properly monitored how taxpayers' money has been spent. Witnesses assured us that this would improve.
Research suggests that high-quality early years education can have a lasting positive impact on educational achievement, but the higher the quality the greater the cost will often be, due to the extra cost of employing qualified staff. While there is evidence of educational improvement at age five, the evidence that this is sustained is questionable. The Department needs to do more to understand how educational benefits can be lasting and why outcomes at age seven have shown such little improvement.
There is not enough good information for parents to make informed choices about early years education. Data on performance of local providers is not easily available to parents and parents are too often unsure about what exactly their children are entitled to. We are particularly concerned at reports that some families are still not receiving the entitlement free of charge; it is important that all parents know what the entitlement is and that it should be provided completely free. It is not enough for the Department to respond to complaints. It must actively take steps to ensure parents enjoy their legitimate right to free pre-school education for their children.
The Department considers that early years education has the greatest benefit for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However disadvantaged families have the lowest levels of take-up and deprived areas have the lowest levels of high quality services. The Department needs to identify and share good practice from those local authorities which are having the most success in increasing take-up amongst disadvantaged groups and providing high quality early years education. They should, in particular, learn from the almost universal high quality of early years education offered by nursery schools.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education, as well as a panel of expert witnesses, on the free entitlement to education for three and four year olds.