More research needs to be done into how the £2.7 billion spent on early years education is affecting school standards, the public spending watchdog said today.
The report from the National Audit Office (NAO) also warns that an expansion of free childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds could reduce the number of places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds, because providers fear there is not enough funding for both.
“Many parents and children are benefitting from the entitlement to free childcare, but the Department [for Education] does not yet know what long-term outcomes it is getting for its investment of nearly £3 billion a year,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO.
“In rolling out the new entitlement the Department should use and evaluate its pilots to make sure that certain groups do not inadvertently lose out. It is particularly important that the number of disadvantaged 2-year-olds accessing free childcare continues to rise, in line with the Department’s own aspirations," she said.
The study said there had been a rise in the number of children assessed by teachers as having reached a good level of development at the end of reception, from 52 per cent in 2013 to 66 per cent in 2015.
However, there was a large gap of 18 per cent points between the proportion of disadvantaged children reaching these levels compared with their peers.
And there was no way of assessing the impact different early years providers had on children, the report – Entitlement to free early education and childcare – said.
The report said: “The Department has not sought to track outcomes for cohorts of children who attended different types of early years provider, which would be one way to try to understand the relative effectiveness of different approaches.”
It adds that the end of the mandatory early years foundation stage profile and introduction of optional baseline assessments will reduce the information available further still.
The NAO added that take-up of the free 15-hours-a-week childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds was almost universal but the offer of free childcare for disadvantaged 2-year-olds had only been taken up by 58 per cent of those eligible.
The low proportion of disadvantaged 2-year-olds taking up free childcare was highlighted by Ofsted in its early years report last summer, which called for schools to do more to support the transition between nurseries, pre-school, childminders and schools.
While the Department plans to double the number of hours of free childcare that working families are entitled to for 3 and 4-year-olds, the level of funding has seen a real-terms cut of 4.5 per cent since 2013. This means that childcare providers may choose to offer more hours to 3 and 4-year-olds rather than 2-year-olds who need a higher staffing ratio.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “We welcome this report from the NAO, and in particular, its emphasis on the need to ensure that the 30-hour offer is funded adequately.
“We agree that the upcoming pilots will be vital to ensuring the success of the 30-hour free entitlement offer. However, as it stands, providers in those local authorities chosen to trial the extended scheme still have no idea how much funding they will receive, meaning that they cannot plan or budget effectively ahead of time.
“This scheme is too important to be rushed or cobbled together. The government must now work in partnership with the sector if it is to deliver on the promise that it made to parents.”
The Department for Education responded to the NAO report quoting a survey of councils which found a 70 per cent take-up figure for free childcare for two-year-olds.
Education and childcare minister Sam Gyimah said the latest figures showed the government's plan "is working".
"Thanks to our plan to support more working parents by doubling the free hours the government provides we expect this trend to continue", he said.