Spending £800 million of free nursery places for three-year-olds has failed to produce any lasting improvements in education standards, according to a study published today.
The policy was first billed as a "double dividend" which would help prepare children better for school and give their parents more opportunity to find part-time work.
However, according to an analysis of the programme presented to the Royal Economic Society yesterday, children's school outcomes are only slightly improved at age five if they have taken advantage of free nursery places.
By the time they sit assessments at seven and national curriculum tests in the three R's, there is no evidence of any educational benefit, it adds.
The findings contradict earlier beliefs that a sound nursery education is the key to unlocking children's potential at school.
It indicates, however, that part of the reason for the children's lack of progress was because they were mainly provided with places in the private sector - where there were fewer qualified teachers.
The analysis, carried out jointly by researchers by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of Surrey and the University of Essex, argued that the biggest benefit from the programme was cutting the cost of childcare and making it easier for mothers in particular to take part-time employment.
"On the face of it, our results cast some doubt over the value for money of universal early education," said Dr Jo Blonden, of the University of Surrey..
"More than 80 per cent of the children taking up free places would probably have gone to nursery anyway and children's test scores do not seem to be any higher in the longer term as a result of the policy.
"In fact, the main benefit of the policy seems to have been to make child care cheaper for families of three-year-olds. It is tempting to say te money would have been better spent on the poorest children."
The policy has led to 12,000 more mothers finding part-time work - whereas the education outcomes of five-year-olds only improved by two percentage points amongst those that took up the programme. When it came to children who would otherwise have had no experience of nursery schooling, their score on on the foundation stage profile - an assessment of what they could do on leaving the nursery - went up by 15 points.
Labour first pledged universal free nursery places for three and four-year-olds in the 1997 election campaign amidst claims that it would a "double dividend" - improving the school readiness of five-year-olds whilst reducing the cost of child care.
It was not until 2005, though, that the provision of places became effectivelt universal. Since the advent of the Coalition Government, the provision of free places has been extended to two-year-olds from disadvantaged homes.
Dr Birgitta Rabe, from Essex University, said: "The case for extending the free entitlement (for all) is not as clear cut as the political rhetoric might suggest."
Dr Kitty Stewart, from the London School of Economics, added: "All the expansion in free places occurred in the private sector rather than in public nurseries or nursery classes in primary school.
"Children in the private sector are much less likely to be taught by qualified teachers who are best equipped to provide a high quality learning environment.
"This could help explain the lack of long term benefits."Reuse content