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The number of parents helped back into work by the free childcare places for three-year-olds scheme has been minimal, a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found.
Estimates suggest only 12,000 mothers have been helped back to work as most parents were already paying for some sort of childcare provision.
Researchers suggested the policy enabled most families to begin receiving a discount on childcare they would have been paying for anyway.
The scheme has been labelled a ‘very expensive employment policy’ and an expensive way to move a small number of families into work.
Research carried out by the IFS and the University of Essex did show an increase of three percentage points in the number in mothers re-entering employment whose youngest child was receiving the three year old childcare discounts. For parents who had children that were also younger than three, the scheme was found to have had little or no impact.
Mike Brewer, research fellow at IFS and professor of economics at the University of Essex comments: “In recent months, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party have all promised to spend additional money to extend the free entitlement to early education.
"Our results suggest that the current approach is improving – but by no means transforming – the labour market attachment of mothers of young children. The expansion of free early education in the 2000s was a very expensive way to move an additional 12,000 mothers into the labour force, and the case for extending the free entitlement is not as clear cut as political rhetoric might suggest. A more open and honest debate about the rationale for these policies, and whether the evidence supports these positions, would be welcome.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “It is important to note that these findings suggest that the introduction of free early education places had a limited impact on outcomes, largely because most children accessing places would have done so anyway, even if the places were not free. This is not the same as saying that early education itself has a limited impact, and should not be misinterpreted as such.
“In fact, the research found that for those children who otherwise would not have accessed any early education, the provision of places through the free entitlement scheme had a notably positive impact: an increase in Early Years Foundation Stage Profile scores at age five of 17 per cent on average."
Victoria Flint, head of communications at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), agreed with Mr Leitch's comments and said:
"Attending pre-school has a wealth of other benefits for children that were not analysed as part of this study, including the opportunity to mix and socialise with children of different backgrounds and cultures.
"The vast majority of evidence shows that high quality childcare is one of the most effective ways of helping reduce the gap in inequality in the early years, and in boosting children's life chances."
Reacting to conclusions made in the report, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nursery Association (NDNA), disagreed that the scheme has made little difference and championed its long term benefits for children.
She highlighted Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) research published last month which found children that were given quality early years education went on to experience better GCSE grades. She added children who received early years provision also tended to earn higher wages than those which did not.
She said: “We must not forget the free early education initiative is primarily about investing in a child’s life chances.
“As well as the economic benefits felt in that child’s lifetime, these benefits are felt down the generations. It is well documented that parents’ academic achievements are among the strongest influencers on how well their own children do and the improved outcomes they have enjoyed will be passed down the line.
“In its report published today, IFS says the free early education policy effectively gives parents a discount on early education and childcare they would have paid for anyway, but it is important not to dismiss how vital this support is as families work with even tighter financial budgets.
“With increasing demands on the family income only those in the highest pay brackets do not feel the value a 15 hour free place gives them to balance work and home. All children irrespective of their background and family budget will benefit socially from mixing, playing and learning together. This value is clearly recognised by all political parties who have all placed childcare and investing in the expansion of free places high on their agendas.”
Ms Tanuku believes politicians should work on ensuring adequate finding is provided to the front line of early years settings offering free early years childcare to three-year-olds.