Report Overview

Several decades of research has found that early education and care can have a positive effect on children’s cognitive, behavioural and social outcomes, particularly if it is of high quality, and particularly for disadvantaged children. However, less is known about the optimum number of hours, including whether this differs by socio-economic background.

This new analysis, conducted by Professor Edward Melhuish at the University of Oxford, is from data in the Study of Early Education and Development (SEED). The research looks in greater detail at the impact of the number of hours that young children have in early years education and care, with breakdowns by socio-economic background. The report also looks at how the quality of a child’s home learning environment can impact on the effects of time spent in early years provision.

Key findings

Impact of early years provision by socio-economic group

  • For children from disadvantaged families (those in the lowest 40% of the income distribution), there are benefits for cognitive development associated with early childhood education and care usage between the ages of 3 and 5 years. These benefits are on average substantially greater if the provision is of high quality.
  • For children in more advantaged families (the upper 60% of the income distribution) early childhood care and education is less important than for disadvantaged children. For better off children, outcomes from attendance are more mixed, with both positive and negative associations, although there are fewer negative impacts for this group when provision is of high quality.
  • There are some socio-emotional benefits but also some socio-emotional drawbacks linked with formal group early childhood education and care usage. The drawbacks largely concern externalising (or antisocial) behaviour. The association with externalising behaviour, behavioural self-regulation and emotional self-regulation is strong for better off children, whereas for internalising behaviour (children becoming easily upset or anxious) the association is stronger for disadvantaged children.
  • However, these drawbacks are not found for disadvantaged children in high quality provision. It is also reduced, even at high levels of attendance, when a child is in a mix of individual and group provision.
  • Disadvantaged children benefit more from early childhood care and education when attending with children from a mix of socio-economic backgrounds, likely due to a peer influence operating for both children and parents.

Time in early childhood education and care

  • Most of the negative impacts seen for externalising behaviour of more time in an early years setting are already seen by the time a child is in provision for 15 hours a week. Increasing hours beyond 15-20 per week does not appear to further increase externalising behaviour, except for non-disadvantaged children, and only if in provision for 35 hours or more per week.
  • For disadvantaged children, there are no significant differences in socio-emotional outcomes between those in formal early years provision for 15 to 20 hours per week and children who attended for a higher number of hours.
  • There will be little extra benefit to children’s development of early years provision of greater duration than 15-20 hours per week, but if the provision is of high quality, there are unlikely to be adverse effects for disadvantaged children, and longer hours could bring wider benefits to families (e.g. by allowing parents to work).

Importance of the home learning environment

  • A high quality home learning environment is beneficial for children, with higher family home learning environment (HLE) scores associated with better verbal ability at age 5 for both disadvantaged and better-off children.
  • For disadvantaged children, a better home learning environment is associated with better behavioural self-regulation at age 5 and can also help to prevent the poorer socio-emotional outcomes which are otherwise associated with high use of lower quality early years provision.
Implications for the 30 hours policy
  • Just 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are currently eligible for the 30 hour entitlement.
  • If a child isn’t eligible for the 30 hours policy, they only receive funding for 15 hours per week. There have previously been concerns that disadvantaged children may have socio-emotional problems if in childcare for longer hours – however, the new data here shows that this is not the case. For disadvantaged children, there are clear benefits of time in early years provision up to 20 hours per week, and no evidence of negative impacts for longer hours (if provision is of high quality).
  • There are also potential benefits for take-up of making the government’s offer for early years provision universal. Currently, families can fall in and out of eligibility for 30 hours (especially those only just qualifying), leaving parents with uncertainty about their childcare arrangements, and the process is often challenging for nurseries/families to navigate.
  • Expanding eligibility to the 30 hours policy would also help many parents to better juggle work and family life, allowing them to take on work or increase their working hours. Given current challenges for many families due to the cost of living crisis – being able to increase the number of hours parents are working (without facing hefty nursery fees) could have considerable economic benefits for lower income families.