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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband addresses an audience in the Brooks Building of Manchester Metropolitan University on April 21, 2015  

If socialism means building homes and getting the rich to pay their taxes, then bring on Red Ed

Kiran Moodley

Prevention is better than cure if we want to save the NHS

Tanni Grey Thompson
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before