Education Endowment Foundation:Earlier starting age

Earlier starting age

Moderate impact for very high cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation costThe cost estimates in the Toolkits are based on the average cost of delivering the intervention.
Evidence strengthThis rating provides an overall estimate of the robustness of the evidence, to help support professional decision-making in schools.
Impact (months)The impact measure shows the number of additional months of progress made, on average, by children and young people who received the intervention, compared to similar children and young people who did not.

Earlier starting age” refers to increasing the time a child spends in early years education by beginning at a younger age.

For an assessment of the evidence related to increasing the number of hours spent in early years education at a given time, see​“Extra hours”.

In the UK, an earlier starting age would typically mean being enrolled in nursery or pre-school from the age of two or three and experiencing up to two years of early years education before starting school.

  • Beginning early years education one year earlier than usual appears to have a moderate positive impact (+three months) on learning outcomes.

  • One of the weaknesses of the evidence base is that most of the studies examine comparisons between starting early years education at four rather than five. While impacts appear consistent, there is much less evidence around the impact of earlier starting ages (e.g. two or three year olds).

  • An important consideration around earlier starting age is cost. Where costs present a barrier to disadvantaged families, attainment gaps may grow.

  • An earlier starting age will have impact on provision. Careful consideration should be given to provide appropriate support for all age ranges across settings.

  • Positive effects have been detected for early reading outcomes in the first year of primary school as well as early language and number skills. There is some evidence that positive effects of an earlier starting age can be sustained into primary and secondary school, but evidence is much weaker and heavily influenced by the quality of provision during primary school.

The average impact of an earlier starting age is about an additional three months’ progress over the course of a year.

Evidence about the longer-term impact of an earlier starting age varies. In some studies, positive effects are detectable into primary school and even into secondary school. However, in several US studies benefits do not usually appear to be sustained for more than a year or two. It appears likely that the quality of provision is the key determinant of sustained improvement, but more evidence is needed in this area to identify which practices are most helpful for different ages.

The existing evidence base relates primarily to attendance at a group-based early years setting for an additional year, rather than attending a home-based setting such as a childminder.

The school starting age is different in different countries, which can make it hard to assess the applicability of evidence from different countries to the UK. For example, though findings related to earlier starting ages from the USA are consistent with those from the UK, pre-kindergarten education in the USA typically involves four and five year olds, and few high-quality studies assess the impact of starting at two or three.

In the UK, the highest quality study conducted to date is the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project, which has assessed the impact of an earlier starting age. The study looked at the association between different kinds of pre-school provision and young children’s learning, and involved 3,000 children. It found that earlier starting ages were correlated with improved learning outcomes.

  • Similar effects are found for studies involving three year olds as those with four and five year olds, but there are fewer studies.

  • Effects are similar across nurseries and early years settings in primary schools.

  • Similar effects are found for early literacy and mathematics outcomes (+three months).

  • While the majority of studies have been undertaken in the USA, there is evidence on an earlier starting age from the UK, South America, Australia and Asia.

There are some indications that the impact of additional early years provision can be particularly positive for children from socio-economically disadvantaged families. To increase the likelihood of an earlier starting age benefitting disadvantaged children, settings should consider how to secure engagement and attendance among those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ensuring that cost does not present a barrier to low socio-economic status families accessing early childhood education may be an important factor in closing the attainment gap. In England, three- and four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours per week free childcare, or 30 hours for working families that meet certain criteria.

While there is a positive impact to an earlier starting age, there are some key considerations around implementation to maximise the effectiveness of the approach:

  • Reducing the starting age may increase the age range among early years settings; it is crucial that that staff are prepared for appropriate provision across the range.
  • In particular, it will be important to assess the effectiveness of provision for younger children.
  • Carefully selected professional development can help staff to support younger children’s development and learning.

When introducing new approaches, settings should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the costs are estimated as very high but there is large variation in costs. In England all three and four year olds can get 570 free hours of early education or childcare a year. The average cost for preschool in England is £102 per week. There is, however, regional variation – for example, costs are higher in London.

Alongside free hours, parents may also be eligible for Universal Credit and Tax-Free Childcare.

The security of the evidence around an earlier starting age is rated as very low. 41 studies met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. This relatively low number of studies reduces our confidence in the findings. The topic lost three padlocks for this reason.

The topic lost an additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.

One of the threats to the security of the evidence is the different levels of evidence for different age groups. In particular, there are very few studies on the benefits of starting early education at two rather than three or four.

Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strengthThis rating provides an overall estimate of the robustness of the evidence, to help support professional decision-making in schools.
Number of studies41
Review last updatedFebruary 2023