Nursery school education in England is mostly provided by the private sector although partly funded by the state. Generally the arrangement seems to work rather well. The quality has also been improving according to Ofsted – “85 per cent of providers on the Early Years register held ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ grades in 2015 compared to only 68 per cent in 2010.”

Even with some help from the taxpayer the cost of the fees can be steep. Perhaps a nursery school in London might charge £1,500 a term for three mornings a week. After the child’s third birthday £600 a term of this fee is met by the taxpayer – covering the supposed cost of 15 hours a week. This is the Free Early Years Education grant.

There is keen debate about the best age for a child to start nursery school. Or whether they should go at all. Compulsory schooling does not start until the term after a child’s fifth birthday. There is also the matter of whether nursery schools should teach anything. Some focus on “developing social skills” – letting children just play. Others teach children to read.

A recent report from Ark says there has been “a rising tide in child outcomes at age five” but that the gap hasn’t closed much:

“Teacher assessments, which take place in Reception, have suggested steadily improving outcomes since they were first published in 2007. The percentage of children reaching the government’s standard of a ‘good level of development’ in the period since 2013 has grown particularly steeply – from 52 per cent to 66 per cent nationally, with Free School Meals eligible pupils having to keep pace with rates of improvements. These figures should be treated with some caution, given the introduction of a new framework, but they are notable nonetheless.

“Despite the overall rise in performance, the relative outcomes of disadvantaged children suggest early years policies are still not making significant headway in terms of narrowing the gap. Millennium Cohort Study analysis found that low-income children were behind by nearly one year at school entry in 2006 in vocabulary, and by smaller but still substantial amounts in other types of cognitive development. The gap, as measured by the proportion of Free School Meals eligible children achieving a ‘good level of development’ in EYFS assessments at age 5 relative to their peers, has narrowed only a little since then. Ofsted report a narrowing of only around 2 percentage points from 2007 to 2014 on this measure. Free School Meal eligible children typically remain 18.9 percentage points behind their peers on this measure.”

One big obstacle to good, affordable nursery education is the bureaucracy. The most damaging is the staff:child ratio for two-year-olds. This is 1:3 – which compares with 1:5 in France and 1:8 in Italy. It is supposed to improve standards but does the opposite as it means staff are low paid. It also makes nursery school provision unaffordable for many people.

In a recent article for The Times Philip Collins proposed reducing the school leaving age:

“Every change in the school leaving age has been to raise it. We should do the opposite and lower it to 14. I simply cannot see the point in making another two years of inevitable boredom in class a statutory requirement. At the age of 14, all students should be able to opt for a diploma in a subject that points them towards work.”

Very sensible. But perhaps the age that compulsory education starts should also be lowered – from five to four or three. Should it be legal to let your children spent all day staring at cartoons on the TV until the age of five and not learn anything at all?

There could be greater encouragement for primary schools to open a nursery. Free schools could be allowed to open as stand alone nursery schools – especially in deprived areas.

But I would also do something for the “squeezed middle”. In London the idea that providing £4 or £5 an hour will pay the fees for a good nursery school is unrealistic. This allowance should be increased to boost independent provision.

While we should celebrate that the standard of nursery education has been rising for everyone it is a concern that the wide gap remains. It could and should be closed.