10th December 2020

Early years workforce qualifications and children’s outcomes

This research from the Education Policy Institute, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, finds that the presence of a graduate in private, voluntary and independent (PVI) early years settings demonstrates a small but positive association with young children’s educational attainment.

Using a model that controls for children’s characteristics, and drawing on data spanning over a decade covering over 6 million children, the study finds that modest improvements in child outcomes were seen across several years of data, and persisted into primary school, remaining at age 11.

The report also finds that the association between a child attending early years settings with a graduate and improved outcomes is twice as strong for those children who spend more hours in settings – strengthening the case for an extension of the government’s 30 hours free childcare offer, so that it is open to all families.  

While the new findings indicate a positive impact from graduates, the report also demonstrates that their presence is far from a “silver bullet” for improving young children’s attainment – this is also driven by a range of other factors in the early years, school and home environment. Early years graduates are also currently in very short supply: on average only one staff member in private, voluntary and independent early years settings has a degree. 

In light of this, EPI calls on the government to focus on a strategy to boost the quality of the whole early years workforce, while also focusing on improving graduate take-up. It also calls for a review of early years degrees, to explore how they can be enhanced.

These recommendations follow the publication of separate research from EPI, led by researchers at the University of Plymouth and supported by the Nuffield Foundation, which demonstrates how early years degrees currently on offer are highly variable and difficult for students and employers to navigate.  

Key findings


The association between degree-qualified early years professionals and children’s outcomes

  • There is a small but positive association between the presence of a degree-qualified early years worker and children’s learning outcomes, as measured at age five by the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) – the statutory assessment used to determine young children’s attainment.
  • Having a graduate working in an early years setting corresponds to an additional third of an EYFSP point score. These results are modest compared to other factors (for example, the gap between an autumn-born child and a summer-born child is 4.3 EYFSP points), but they are evident across degree types. The two main types of qualifications available today, Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS), demonstrate this positive association.
  • Significantly, the association with positive learning outcomes is sustained as a child enters primary school, showing that improvements in the early years are sustained up until at least the age of 11. This challenges the claim that the benefits of early childhood interventions fade as children grow older.
  • The more modest improvements in outcomes shown from the presence of a graduate are not unexpected, given young children’s outcomes are driven by a range of other factors in the early years, in school and at home. Likewise, while the presence of a graduate appears to be a positive, they alone are unlikely to generate wholesale changes to the quality of provision, given the poor conditions faced by the workforce overall.

The link between a child attending early years settings with a graduate and higher attainment scores is bolstered if the child spends more hours in early years education

  • Young children who spend more than 15 hours in early years settings appear to see more benefits from the presence of a graduate than those attending for fewer hours.
  • This association is unlikely to be merely driven by the fact that children from wealthier backgrounds are more likely be in early years settings for longer hours – the analysis also shows that the positive association is still present when focusing on the most disadvantaged children.
  • These findings have important implications for the government’s free childcare policy, as it suggests that opening up the offer of 30 hours of funded childcare to the most disadvantaged children (who are currently excluded) could be beneficial, especially when their setting has a graduate.

Policy recommendations

  • The government should assess the impact of deploying different types of early years staff, including those with higher qualifications.
  • The government should undertake a review of early years degrees to assess the differences among types of degree-level qualifications, content quality and how well they prepare graduates for work in early years settings.
  • The government should consider the costs and benefits of extending the 30 hours childcare entitlement, so that it is universal and sufficiently funded to be of high quality, and allows disadvantaged children the same opportunities as their wealthier peers at a very young age.


This report is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social wellbeing. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org