The Department for Education has been told to re-think a decision not to publish key research it used to set new funding levels for free nursery places.
The Information Commissioner has given it 35 days to issue a fresh response to a challenge for the research to be made public.
The government had argued that research carried out by accountants Deloitte was not in its possession to publish.
But the Information Commissioner found that claim to be “not plausible”.
The research fed into the government’s decision on how to set hourly rates for nursery providers offering the free 30-hours nursery place entitlement.
‘Open to scrutiny’
This pre-election pledge by the Conservatives to offer places to working parents of three- and four-year-olds in England is due to come into force next September.
The rates were revealed in the review of childcare costs, which was published last year.
There were more than 50 references to the Deloitte research in that government review, leading the Pre-school Learning Alliance to ask the government to publish the research.
When the government refused, it took the case to the Information Commissioner.
The alliance has been arguing that the average hourly rates for the scheme of £4.88 per hour for four-year-olds and £5.39 for two-year-olds are too low and would make the early years sector unsustainable.
And it argued the Deloitte research was key to setting these rates and therefore should be published.
In its ruling, the commissioner said it was “unlikely that the DfE would commit to investing over £1bn more per year on childcare funding by 2019-2020” as a result of research it had not seen.
He added that if the research was held by Deloitte, then it was held on behalf of the department, and therefore subject to freedom of information requests.
Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said: “We are very pleased that the Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled in our favour and agreed that the Department for Education’s argument that it doesn’t hold research that it itself commissioned, and subsequently used, does not wash.
“The research commissioned by the DfE to Deloitte played an integral role in its review of childcare delivery costs, and by extension, the development of the new early years funding rates due to come into effect next year.
“As such, this information should be made public and open to scrutiny, especially given that so many in the sector do not believe that the new funding rates are in fact enough to cover the cost of delivering funded places.
“Given that the ICO was unequivocal in its judgement, we hope that the DfE will now make this research available to us without any further delay.”
The DfE said: “We are currently considering the next steps and will make a decision in due course.”