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Oxford University’s Department of Education research leads to free nursery hours for 3-4 year olds.

A good start in life

Image credit: Shutterstock

This country’s commitment to education rises above political parties and parliamentary terms. All stages of the education system are important, but recent governments have turned their attention to Early Years Education. Could the first few years of a child’s involvement with education influence future achievements for years?  Could education level the playing field for disadvantaged children?

Since 1997, Kathy Sylva, Pam Sammons and Ted Melhuish have led the Effective Provision of Pre-School, Primary and Secondary  Education (EPPSE) project, the largest study of its kind in Europe, tracking the progress of 3,000 children between the ages of 3 and 16. The results, drawn out through statistical analysis of this huge dataset and grounded in three decades of wider research and engagement, told a clear story. 

Anyone who has worked in Britain over the last ten years in the field of early education and care will...have been influenced by the EPPSE project.  Indeed, many people currently employed in early years services owe the fact of their employment, at least in part, to the findings from this remarkable research
- Naomi Eistenstadt, former UK Government Chief Advisor on Child Services

The study found that attending preschool enhances a child’s development, and that the quality of the preschool is important. Furthermore, how and what a child learns at home in the early years has a strong influence on future achievements, over and beyond their parents’ social class and educational backgrounds. The takeaway headlines were simple: quality preschool is good for all children, and particularly good for disadvantaged children.  Each of the three main findings sparked policy change in the early 2000s with the introduction of universal provision of pre-school for all 4 year olds, and has had a lasting impact on how children are educated in the first years of their lives.

EPPSE research has continued to influence policy decisions that extended the Early Years education entitlement to 3 year olds, to increase the quality and professionalism of the sector through the Graduate Leader Fund, and to inform policy on Children’s Centres in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The Education Act 2011 raised the universal provision from 12.5 to 15 hours of free Early Years education for all 3-4 year olds, and introduced targeted places for disadvantaged 2 year olds. This impressive commitment by successive governments of different political persuasions had to be based on the best possible research, and EPPSE findings are noted by the National Audit Office as underpinning the Department for Education’s actions for more than a decade. Since 2000 a range of support mechanisms have been rolled out to increase the quantity and quality of early education and care, and continued governments have used Oxford research to support their efforts to achieve quality childcare across the country.

The EPPSE project collected data from children and parents, and about their home and preschool environments. They studied a broad range of socio-economic, ethnic and educational groups, who came from rural, urban and mixed areas across the country.  Children who did not attend preschool were also included in the study. The research controlled for these differences, so that researchers could examine the impact of a range of factors – attending a preschool, disadvantage – and see how that affected the child’s attainment at different ages. Successive phases of the research have followed the sample up through successive phases of education to age 16. The most recent results show that pre-school and home learning environments still shape outcomes at GCSE and young people’s destinations after 16. Linked work by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested that pre-school provides significant savings to the Exchequer across projected life time earnings.

Once enrolled in the study, Sylva and the EPPE team measured the children’s reading, writing and maths skills and collected data from national assessments and public examinations.  Teachers provided information about their social behaviour, such as how the child played with others, and how anxious they were in new situations. They found that children who had attended a preschool showed better academic and social behavioural outcomes throughout primary school and that the benefits could still be identified up to the end of secondary schooling. 

When researchers used the data to isolate the impact of disadvantage, they found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly benefit from attending a good quality preschool. Interestingly, the data showed that a child’s preschool attendance doesn’t have to be full time to have a positive impact:  there were no differences in the attainment of children who had been in preschool full time or part time.

The EPPE project showed that the higher the quality of the preschool, the better the intellectual and social development of the children Not only that, but the longer a child attends a high-quality preschool for, the better their development. The consistency in these findings and the longer term effects that last through secondary education and the team’s wider expertise, have fed into policy successive governments’ policy decisions over the last 16 years. 

find out more

Department for Education

The EPPSE project