Nursery or bursary?

December 12, 2003

The government should invest at preschool level and up to widen access, argues Leon Feinstein

Tony Blair recently referred to the benefit of public-sector funding of programmes for preschool children, estimated to be in the region of £10 for every £1 spent, based on better school outcomes, increases in earnings and reduction in crime.

He linked this to the proposal to introduce top-up fees to fund universities. Government spending on the different stages of education is strongly slanted towards higher education and away from younger children or adults. The argument for fees is that higher education is already doing very well out of the taxpayer and that the greater benefits of spending money on other stages of education have been ignored.

However, despite interest in chancellor Gordon Brown's pledge to increase spending on childcare in the pre-budget report, the government is having obvious difficulties convincing even members of its own party of the value of the shift in education funding towards pre-school children. Of course, much of this opposition is based not on disagreements about the relative merits of funding at different stages of life, but on mistrust of the government's intention in relation to markets and public-sector reform.

Yet, putting aside the important issues about the method of delivery, we should not delude ourselves that we know with any degree of certainty the relative benefits of education investments at different stages of life, particularly when the returns are hypothesised to include complex social benefits such as social cohesion, reduced crime, happier lives and increases in international competitiveness.

There is some weak evidence to support the view that higher education might offer better returns in terms of international competitiveness but lower returns for the wider benefits. Ultimately, though, it is not simply the average relative returns that matter but the level of inequality in their distribution, the ratio of public-to-private benefit and the extent to which the investments can be funded by the individual rather than by the state.

Again, these are difficult and complex questions but, given our ignorance of the answers, it would seem that the current bias in funding towards higher education is misplaced. This is particularly so in relation to inequality.

The overwhelming weight of evidence is that social class has a major affect on school attainment. However, social class has no effect on participation in higher education once account is taken of A-level scores. The extent to which higher education is slanted towards the middle class is fully explained by differences in attainment that have taken place long before any application to higher education is made. This leads to the strong implication for those concerned with inequality in access to higher education that they should focus their attention on earlier stages of life.

By the time the issue of access to higher education arises, the impact of education spending on social inequality has already been felt.

The evidence from the US, where preschool programmes are often robustly evaluated, is that early-years interventions can achieve benefits of the kind described by Blair, but only where they are of high quality and persistent. Even a two-year programme must be followed up when children enter school, or the effects whither away.

If politicians really want to provide equal opportunity, they must be prepared to invest substantial public funds. If the government can resolve the funding crisis in Universities without drawing too heavily on public funds, it may create the potential to increase spending on education at other stages of life. This is equitable because spending on higher education is the most biased towards the rich and successful. Inequality in educational opportunity can be tackled, but only by investments in children that start when they are young and that endure.

Leon Feinstein is senior research officer at the Bedford Group for lifecourse and statistical studies at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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