The original target of the Department of Education’s Pre-school Education Expansion Programme (the Programme), launched in April 1998, was to create over 9,000 new high quality funded pre-school places by 2002. In the longer term, the aim was to provide a full year of pre-school education for every child whose parents wish it (the pre-school education stage is not compulsory). By 2008-09 provision of funded pre-school places covered 97 per cent of children in their immediate pre-school year (i.e. children aged over three years and two months). Prior to the start of the Programme coverage had stood at 45 per cent.
The Programme was targeted initially on the most socially disadvantaged children, who are more likely to experience difficulty at school and who are known to benefit to a greater degree from pre-school education, as well as the oldest children in the pre-school cohort. The additional places were to be provided through a partnership approach between the statutory and voluntary/private sectors, and providers had to adhere to quality standards assessed by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). Since 1998, the total expenditure incurred by the Programme has been £85 million.
A report published today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, John Dowdall CB, examines the Department of Education’s policy-making procedures in relation to this Programme and reviews the progress the Programme has made against its core objectives of improving the accessibility of pre-school education and maintaining its quality.
On the Development and Implementation of the Pre-school Education Expansion Programme (Part 2 of the Report)
Although the current best practice guidance on policy-making, produced by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in 2003, was not available to the Department when it was developing and implementing the Programme, the report found that the broad principles of good practice were recognised and applied effectively. There were, however, two areas of potential improvement related to the earliest phase of the process:
- given its non-compulsory nature and the reliance on parental choice for uptake, the participation of parents in the process might have been encouraged through more targeted consultation at the design stage of the Programme’s development;
- a related area for improvement concerns communication with potential recipients. The focus group set up by the Department to examine the new admissions arrangements reported that “the absence of a co-ordinated publicity campaign was a significant factor in the confusion and misunderstanding of the 1999 admissions arrangements”. The Department has recognised that it needed to connect more effectively with parents, at the outset.
On the Accessibility and Quality of Pre-school Education (Part 3 of the Report)
Whilst the Department has been increasingly successful in matching the provision of places with demand, there are still some areas with either an excess or shortfall in provision.
Factors such as the increased availability of pre-school places (in both statutory and voluntary/private sectors); a decline in the pre-school population; and a higher than anticipated number of parents choosing voluntary provision over statutory provision, has resulted in greater numbers of two year old children being drawn into the Programme to fill empty spaces in the statutory sector. While the legislation does allow statutory nurseries to admit two year olds, this was not specifically intended under the policy and, to date, some £10 million has been invested in providing pre-school education for two-year olds. Evidence emerging from the Department suggests, however, that many nursery schools, and nursery units attached to primary schools, have successfully designed appropriate pre-school programmes for two year olds.
Inspections by ETI have shown a significant improvement in the quality of pre-school centres inspected in all sectors since the Programme started, although there has been a recent downturn in the grades awarded. The report calls on the Department to investigate and address the reasons for this downturn to ensure that pre-school children continue to receive the best quality education.
The establishment of a research study by the Department at the outset of the Programme is an excellent example of planned evaluation. This study, which followed pre-school educated children’s progress, has provided evidence of the positive benefits of pre-school education when compared with children who had no pre-school experience. It has also demonstrated that the better the quality of the setting, the greater the benefits.
The Department’s review in 2004 resulted in remedial action being taken to resolve some structural and operational issues. The review also identified a range of other issues which still remain to be addressed: focusing resources on the professional development of the workforce: involving voluntary/private providers as equal partners; and improving the integration of children with special educational needs. The Department told us that it will take forward these other issues as part of the development of the new Strategy on Early Years.