The impact of nursery attendance on children's outcomes

This project investigated the impact of nursery education on children's cognitive and social development. It focused on the expansion in nursery education since 1998, which led to free part-time nursery education for 3- and 4-year-olds and a large increase in the number of nursery places.

  • Free part-time nursery places for three-year-olds enabled some children to do better in assessments at the end of Reception, but overall educational benefits are small and do not last.
  • Between 1999 and 2007, the proportion of three-year-olds in England benefitting from a free nursery place rose from 37% to 88%. However, for every four children given a free place, only one additional child began to use early education. For the other three children, the policy gave parents a discount on the early education that they would have paid for in any case.
  • While there was modest evidence that the policy had more impact on the poorest, most disadvantaged children, the policy did not close the gap in attainment between those from richer and poorer families in the longer term.
  • A weak relationship between the characteristics if PVI nurseries and children's outcomes was found. Children taught by a highly qualified staff member and those who attended settings rated as Outstanding by Ofsted scored slightly higher on the Foundation Stage Profile. However, the research found there were substantial unexplained differences in outcomes between nurseries.
  • Eligibility for an additional term of free part-time early education results in a very small increase in outcomes at age 5. There is some evidence that an extra term of entitlement is more beneficial for children who attend settings highly rated by Ofsted, but effects are still small.

For further information:

Blanden J, Del Bono E, McNally S, Rabe B. (2016) “Universal pre-school education: the case of public funding with private provision”.  Economic Journal, 126 (May), 682-723.

Blanden, J. Del Bono, E., Hansen, K. and Rabe, B. (2017) “The impact of free early childhood education and care on educational achievement: a discontinuity approach investigating both quantity and quality of provision”. University of Surrey School of Economics Discussion Paper No. 06/17.

Blanden, J., Hansen, K. and McNally, S. (2017) “Quality in Early Years Settings and Children’s School Achievement”. Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) Discussion Paper No.1468, London School of Economics. 

Project details



Dr Jo Blanden and Professor Sandra McNally, School of Economics, University of Surrey

Dr Kirstine Hansen, Institute of Education

Funding programme:


Grant amount and duration:


1 January 2013 - 30 April 2017