X Factor over evidence: the failure of early years education

The Telegraph 23 October 2014
There are some government policies, current and past that have an undeniable X Factor; the minimum wage, freedom of information, free school milk (and perhaps even lunches?).

At first glance – and often under deeper inspection – they ‘feel right’. They are safe, they feel fair … surely they are for the best?

When, in 1998, the Labour government announced it was to provide free nursery places for three year olds, it was based upon the idea that having the right start in life would have a long-term impact, helping to close gaps in attainment between rich and poor.

It was an X-factor policy, levelling the field, helping young families, bettering our children’s futures. A universal policy designed to help the poorest children catch up. Did it work?

A report to the House of Lords today delivered sobering news. In the years 2002 to 2007, the £7bn plus spent on providing 12.5 (now 15) hours of free nursery a week for three year olds had no long-lasting benefits on educational outcomes.

This is a report for which I and colleagues at the University of Essex and Institute of Education have spent the last two years analysing data. Much of my previous work has been on social mobility; understanding the extent to which poor children can escape from a disadvantaged start in life.