Earlier starting age

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

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”.

How effective is it?

Beginning early years education at a younger age appears to have a high positive impact on learning outcomes. It is estimated that children who start to attend an early years setting before turning three make approximately six additional months’ progress compared to those who start a year later. Positive effects have been detected for early reading outcomes in the first year of primary school and moderate to high effects have been detected for early language and number skills. There are some indications that the impact of high-quality early years provision is particularly positive for children from low-income families.

Evidence about the longer term impact of an earlier starting age is mixed. In some studies benefit is detectable into primary school and even secondary school. However, in several US studies benefits do not 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 early years centres or nurseries, rather than provision from childminders.

How secure is the evidence?

Overall the evidence related to early starting age is of moderate security. This relates to the quality of the underlying studies, where it is difficult to be sure about the cause of differences in early starting age and for how long effects are sustained.

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 increased learning outcomes.

The school starting age is different in different countries, which can also make it hard to assess the applicability of evidence from overseas. 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.

Given the high cost of beginning early years education at an earlier age, it is important to evaluate the impact of any activity in this area.

What are the costs?

Overall, the costs are estimated as very high. A full time pre-school place costs about £8,000 for 40 weeks at about £200 per week.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. What are the challenges of an increased age range among children?

  2. How will you evaluate the effectiveness of your provision for younger children?

  3. Have your staff been given appropriate professional development to support younger children?