28th June 2017

Natalie Perera – Early education: UK has much to gain from observing international evidence

In June 2017 the OECD published ‘Starting Strong 2017’, the first international report comparing early childhood education and care (ECEC) . Following the report’s launch, which was hosted by EPI, Executive Director Natalie Perera offers reflections on the key findings.

One of the long-standing challenges in public policy-making in the UK has been the tension between childcare and early years education. The former is a necessary feature of supporting parents, particularly mothers, back to work and it requires both flexibility and affordability. The necessity and features of early education, however, has been more widely contested.

In the  early to mid-2000s, free part-time early education for all 3 and 4 year olds was introduced and Sure Start Children’s Centres were expanded, with the aim of creating a centre in every community. The rationale for this was, in part, based on evidence that showed regular, high quality early years education (for the under 5s) had a beneficial impact on young children, particularly those from disadvantaged families.

Since then, the number of free hours has increased and the offer has also been extended to the 40 per cent most disadvantaged 2 year olds. But, along the way, the purpose of these entitlements has been muddied and the policies have been trapped between labour market participation objectives and early childhood development and social mobility objectives.

The Conservative government’s policy to increase free childcare hours for all 3 and 4 year olds whose parents are in work is firmly aimed at meeting labour market participation objectives. That objective is not undesirable, of course. But, as many academics and practitioners have already argued, it risks undermining any efforts to improve social mobility amongst young children.

Recent data published by the OECD compares early education and childcare in over 30 countries and draws conclusions about the features of effectiveness in this area. The report, Starting Strong 2017′, provides an important intervention for policy makers and sector leaders.

One of the most striking findings is the effect size of attending pre-school (or early years provision) for two years or longer, on attainment at age 15. The study found that, in the UK, there was a difference of around a half a year (in attainment terms) between children who attended pre-school and those who didn’t.

But another important finding is that disadvantaged children were less likely to have attended pre-school (for 2 years or longer) than their more affluent peers, a difference of 7 percentage points in the UK. So attendance at pre-school seems to have a lasting effect, but poorer children are accessing it less than their peers.

But it’s not just frequency that matters. The benefits of early education heavily depends on the quality of the services. The correlation between participation in early years provision and attainment at age 15 is generally stronger in systems where the child to teacher ratio is lower and where public expenditure is higher.

The report also finds that better educated staff with specialised training are more likely to improve children’s cognitive outcomes, through a range of interventions. While further work is needed to identify the precise features of quality, including the workforce structures and professionalisation, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education, was very clear in his assessment of the evidence that the “the case for public investment (in the early years) is strong”.

These findings cause further concern about the government’s plans to exclude children from workless families from accessing an additional 15 hours of free early years provision. As EPI research found last year, not only is this policy likely to benefit wealthier families more, it also risks diluting the quality of early years provision and even displacing the poorest children, with those who are more affluent.

If it is serious about creating a meritocracy in this country, the government should pay close attention to the findings of this report and it should aim to reflect some of the important features which the OECD identifies, which include: significant public investment; a highly trained, well-paid and diverse workforce; and the engagement of parents.

You can find further information about the report on the OECD website

See also: 

April 2017:EPI hosts global launch of OECD PISA results on student well-being

December 2016:OECD PISA Global Launch, hosted by the Education Policy Institute