Conclusions and recommendations |
1. We welcome the fact that over 800,000 three
and four year olds now receive an entitlement to free education.
The significant funding supplied by the Department, alongside
the work of local authorities and providers, means that early
years provision has expanded significantly since this policy was
first introduced over a decade ago. The following recommendations
are intended to push the Department, working with local authorities,
to build on this success and improve the value for money of this
2. The Department has a limited understanding
of how the funding it provides for early education is spent.
Until 2010-11 the Department did not have sufficient data to estimate
spending on early years education and even now the data contains
errors. The Department also has very little knowledge of how funding
for specific purposes has been spent. The Department must collect
and publish further information on spending and outcomes. This
should include the results from funding supplied for specific
purposes, such as increasing capacity and participation. It is
important that proper systems and data are in place to monitor
and assess the investment in two year olds properly.
3. The Department has not yet explored the
reasons underlying the wide variations in local authority spend
and performance and the opportunities to improve value for money
that these imply. Although the implementation
of early years education is devolved to local authorities it is
the Department which must understand and improve the value for
money of the system nationally. The Department must analyse, and
attempt to understand, the variations in spending and outcomes
between different local authorities and types of provider. It
should seek to understand better the relationship between funding
and quality to ensure best value. In particular it must use the
data it has to understand the impact of its initiatives, such
as the local funding formula, so that it can improve outcomes
for children. The Department should also identify and publish
data which enables comparisons to be made and identifies best
practice, enabling local authorities to benchmark their performance
against each other. It should set out in its reply to us what
it will do to ensure robust comparative data and how it intends
to encourage best practice and ensure that local authorities work
with and learn from each other.
4. There is insufficient information available
to parents to allow them to make informed choices. Parents
do not have clear, comparable and up-to-date information regarding
the performance of different providers. The Department should
set out what information local authorities must make available
to parents. This information must be clear and easily accessible.
5. Research shows very strong effects in early
years. However there is no clear evidence from the National Key
Stage One results that the entitlement is having the long term
educational benefits for children that the Department intended.
There is evidence of educational improvement at age five, but
Key Stage One results at age seven have shown very little improvement
since 2007. The Department needs to better understand how the
quality of early years education supports lasting benefits and
what happens in the early years of primary school to lessen the
effect. The Department cannot yet be confident that spending on
the entitlement is having lasting impacts on child development.
The Department should identify how it will measure longer term
impacts on children, and examine why measured improvements at
age five are not feeding through to results at age seven.
6. Disadvantaged families have the lowest
levels of take-up of the entitlement and poorer areas have the
lowest levels of high quality provision.
We are concerned that fewer disadvantaged families take advantage
of the free education entitlements. There is a 9% gap in take-up
of free places between disadvantaged families and other families.
There is a clear correlation between lower quality provision and
areas of poverty. The Department must capture and share practical
examples of local authorities which have successfully increased
take-up in disadvantaged groups. The Department should also state
how it will use the funding system to raise quality in deprived
7. We are concerned that some providers may
be excluding families which do not pay for additional hours.
In the Department's own survey of parents, some parents stated
that they could not receive the 'free' entitlement without buying
additional hours. One witness suggested that compulsory top-up
fees were commonplace in some nurseries and we have seen other
evidence of parents being asked for further payments. Such practices
risk excluding poorer families from nurseries. Although the Department
told us it has acted in response to approaches by parents we are
concerned that it has not been more proactive in understanding
the extent of this problem and tackling it. The Department needs
to work with local authorities to better understand how common
this problem is and to prevent it from happening.