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Leading article: Nursery schools cannot be judged only by cost

The key question is not age, but how the early years of learning are structured

Do we send our children to school too early? There is a deep ambiguity in the report by the National Audit Office into the state of nursery provision. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the Department for Education has done well to provide nursery places for at least 15 hours a week for 95 per cent of our three- and four-year-olds. But it also questions whether the initiative – introduced by Labour in 1998 and continued by the Coalition – is working. Children's levels of development have improved at the age of five, but there is no significant increase in ability at age seven. So are nurseries good value in preparing children for school, considering the scheme costs taxpayers some £1.9bn a year?

The NAO, in focusing on money as it always does, asks the wrong question. A direct correlation between cash spent and early academic results is far too narrow a focus. All the research internationally suggests the key question is not the age at which children start learning, but how the early years of learning are structured. Hungary, Switzerland and Flemish-speaking Belgium are far more successful in teaching literacy and numeracy, even though formal teaching of reading, writing or arithmetic does not start until children are six or seven. It could be that starting school too young is damaging.

An ability to recite numbers from one to 10, and even recognise figures, can disguise a failure to understand that eight is more than three if a child in not cognitively ready. Learning is complex. It does not occur in a vacuum. Rather it is determined by factors such as class, culture and gender – all of which shape interests, knowledge and understanding.

Far better results can come from an early years curriculum that is not structured to include the three Rs but focuses instead on skills such as speaking, paying attention, listening, using memory – which can be acquired through structured play – and interaction with other children. Once they have these skills, more academic learning comes more easily. The obsession of successive governments with testing seven-year-olds reveals an inability to grasp the evidence of objective research. The nursery years are when all that begins.

There are other good reasons for taking the state of Britain's nurseries more seriously. Helping parents manage their childcare costs and working patterns are not the principal purpose of providing 15 hours' free nursery provision for 38 weeks of the year, the report notes. But those are important side-effects. Helping unemployed parents back to work, providing additional income for those already in work, and improving their long-term earnings potential are socially significant factors. So, too, is the impact nurseries may have on reducing child poverty and improving social mobility.

Where the National Audit Office report is useful is in highlighting the patchy nature of provision. Ofsted inspections reveal that the proportion of good or outstanding nurseries rose from 75 per cent to 81 per cent over the past two years. Yet take-up is lowest among the most disadvantaged families who might be expected to benefit most from it – which may have something to do with the limited hours nurseries are open. Areas of highest deprivation are also less likely to have high-quality provision.

The report suggests, though the data is vague, that those local authorities which spend most do not necessarily offer the highest quality – though those prepared to pay for qualified staff, rather than untrained assistants, see a significant rise in quality. Yet it also suggests quality alone is not the only reason parents choose a nursery; convenience and the cost of buying additional hours are key, too. More data, as the NAO suggests, is needed. On such a vital issue, though, a narrow focus on cost does not serve children or parents – or the Government – well.