The free entitlement to education for three and our year olds - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Maximising the benefits for all children

10.  In recent years results for children at age five have improved, but little improvement has been recorded in Key Stage One results at age seven. The Department accepted that there was strong evidence of the beneficial impact from the entitlement at age five but less clear evidence for later years. It explained that looking at assessment results was important but for longer-term impacts it was inconclusive because "as a child or young person goes through the system, so more and more factors pile on their success or otherwise".[17]

11.  Our expert witness from the Institute of Education said that the measures used at age five and at age seven were quite different, and that the Key Stage One assessment was now based on a teacher assessment. She wondered whether schools might assess at a local level at 5 to demonstrate greater added value for the school between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.[18] She believed that there was strong evidence of long-term benefits of high-quality early years provision for children. Poor levels of vocabulary at age three had long lasting effects which could be addressed through the pre-school sector. Research had shown that high-quality early years provision had a long-term impact on reducing anti-social behaviour.[19]

12.  The Pre-school Learning Alliance believed that in terms of long-term impact the importance of the investment was "beyond question".[20] However the Chief Executive of Solihull Council felt that more needed to be done to answer the question as to whether the effects persisted over time. The Department accepted that it needed to do further research to gauge the longer term effect of investment in early years provision..[21]

13.  The Department stressed that involving and working with parents was important to maximise the benefits for children. It explained that it was revising the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum with the explicit purpose of making it more accessible to parents, and that it also wanted to see providers engage better with parents. The Department acknowledged that more needed to be done at all levels in the system so that parents were well informed.[22] The Department told us that it did want to make more information available to parents about performance of providers and of different local authorities, but that this would need careful thought as the information "will be quite complex".[23]

14.  The Pre-school Learning Alliance was concerned that many parents do not fully know or understand what the free entitlement to pre-school education comprised. The Chief Executive told us that he had recently looked at a nursery with his child and was told he must pay fees even though he just wanted the free entitlement. When he had questioned this, the staff member told him that it had thousands of children coming through its settings every year and that none had been given the free entitlement without a payment of top-up fees from parents.[24]

15.  The Department told us that it was wrong that some parents were having to pay top-up fees. The Department did not think this practice was widespread. When we provided further examples of similar problems found on Mumsnet the Department told us that it was ready to follow up the cases raised. [25] The Department told us that it had reacted when parents had approached it directly, or through their MP, with similar complaints. However, the Department had not followed up any cases from a parental survey which had identified this as a problem because the survey did not contain individuals' details.[26]

16.  Research suggests that high quality early learning can have lasting benefits for children and that it can have disproportional benefit for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.[27] The Head of Rowland Children's Centre, Haringey told us that her nursery school was in an area of deprivation and that a third of the children had significant needs. She said that all children made progress and that this continued as they moved on to primary school. The children's centre was working with around three-quarters of all the families in their area (1,000 out of 1,300). The most recent available data from the Department's survey of parents showed that 77% of the most disadvantaged children accessed the entitlement, significantly lower than the average of 86% for all children.[28]

17.  The NAO found that areas with higher levels of deprivation had lower levels of quality in their early years provision. The Department told us that reducing inequalities was critical and that the gap was closing. It also told us that its funding formula required all local authorities to provide more money for areas of deprivation while acknowledging that this varied widely between different local authority areas and was sometimes as low as 3 pence per child per hour. The Department believed that increased transparency would help improve the situation as it would encourage local authorities to improve their performance. It also believed the local authorities should consider removing funding from providers that fail to improve.[29]

17   Q 112; C&AG's report, para 13 Back

18   Qq 1, 6-7 Back

19   Q 24 Back

20   Q 23 Back

21   Q 25, 112 Back

22   Qq 1, 48, 116 Back

23   Q 61 Back

24   Q 22 Back

25   Qq 71-77 Back

26   Qq 134-137; C&AG's report, para 2.7 Back

27   C&AG's report, para 4 Back

28   Qq 16-18, C&AG's report, para 11 Back

29   Qq 50-53, 67-70, 101-105; C&AG's report, Figure 7 Back

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Prepared 22 May 2012