Early years provision is patchy says report

A high take-up nationally of education for three- and four-year-olds has been sustained, but there are wide variations in both take-up and access to high quality provision depending on where children live, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office.

Delivering the Free Entitlement to Education for Three- and Four-Year-Olds says the Department for Education has made progress against many of its objectives in delivering the free entitlement to early education, but it must address variations in take-up, quality of provision and the impact on attainment in later years if it is to achieve value for money.

The national take-up rate for three and four-year-olds in early education has been sustained at 95 per cent since 2008, despite an eight per cent increase in eligible children. There are however, wide variations in take-up between local authorities. Take-up for children from the most disadvantaged families is lower than overall take-up.

The quality of nurseries, schools and other providers offering the free entitlement has been sustained overall since 2008-09, but access to high quality provision varies depending on where children live. According to NAO analysis of Ofsted data, the percentage of good or outstanding provision across local authorities in March 2011 ranged from 64 per cent to 97 per cent. Areas of highest deprivation are less likely to have high quality provision.

Eva Lloyd, Reader in Early Childhood at the University of East London, says:

"The NAO finding that the effect of early education on cognitive development disappeared at the end of Key Stage 1 is in line with those of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project and the US Head Start programme. Moreover, the US demonstration projects which informed the Government's policy, have all involved high quality two-generation interventions.

“In contrast, service quality for the most disadvantaged English children remained lower than elsewhere. Early education on its own has never yet been shown to overcome the effects of poverty and deprivation on children's lives."