Earlier starting age

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 moderate 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. Moderate 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 medium- and long-term impact of an earlier starting age is mixed. In some studies some improvements are detectable into primary school. However, in several US studies benefits do not appear to be sustained. It appears likely that the quality of provision is the key determinant of sustained improvement, but more evidence is needed in this area. 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 base related to earlier starting ages is limited.

In the UK, the highest quality study conducted to date which has assessed the impact on an earlier starting age is the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) project. The study looked at the association between different kinds of pre-school provision and young children’s learning, and involved 3,000 children. However, its correlational design means that it cannot rule out some alternative explanations for its finding that earlier starting ages boost 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 would be important to evaluate the impact of any activity in this area.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

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. If you are planning to encourage families to enrol their children in early years education earlier, how will you ensure that the quality of early years provision remains high?

  2. How will you evaluate the impact of an earlier starting age?

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