International study calls for more early years funding to close the gap

The OECD has welcomed the expansion of 30 hours of funded childcare but urged governments to do more to improve access to quality provision for disadvantaged children.

The international body’s first dedicated report into early childhood education and care (ECEC) draws on comparative international evidence and data, highlighting the growth of early years services across the industrialised world in recent years.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report argues the case for greater investment in early years, particularly to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit.

The report says that while most countries have increased their investment in recent years, there are still gaps in quality and equitable access to ECEC.

England and Scotland come lowest out of 21 countries in terms of the number of hours a week and ages at which children have free access to an entitlement to pre-primary education.

However, the expansion to 30 hours of free childcare from September will bring the UK nearer to the middle of the table for free provision.

The wide-ranging 'Starting Strong 2017' report notes the rise in the attention from policy makers on Early Childhood Education and Care and brings together a wealth of comparable data on initiatives in OECD countries.

It is the first time all the key existing OCED evidence on ECEC from the past 15 years has been published in one report.

Launching the report at an event in London hosted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said that in most countries now there was pretty much universal enrolment at the age of four.

‘It’s no longer just about providing places – a lot is about providing the level of care and quality that really gives children a strong start,’ he said.

Mr Schleicher added, ‘Evidence clearly shows that, when you think about the rate of return - by this I mean the long-term benefits of investing in early childhood education and care - you can clearly see early childhood education pays off hugely for children of disadvantage, and the well-off. In both cases you can see the benefits, but for disadvantaged children it is clearly more significant.’

But he added that in most countries the data shows that wealthier parents seem to be able to better capitalise on ECEC.

Analysing PISA scores showed that in many countries attending ECEC gave children ‘a huge advantage’ at the age of 15, including in subjects such as science.

‘The message really is on balance there is quite a significant net benefit that we can measure at age 15,’ he said.

This was shown not just in children’s cognitive outcomes and better PISA scores but also in important social and emotional development factors and wellbeing.

Introducing the report at an event in Westminster, Natalie Perera, executive director of the EPI, whose career has included working at the Department for Education on early years policy, said that too often investment and focus had been lacking.

‘EPI research shows that by the age of five the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest is four months, and unsurprisingly that gap grows over a child’s life over primary, secondary and beyond.

‘If we want an equitable society, one which is based on merit not birth we need to tackle that equity gap as early as possible.’

Commenting on the findings, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We fully support the OECD’s call for early years investment to be focused on improving the quality of provision, rather than simply creating more places.?

‘Over recent years, government policy in England has been increasingly preoccupied with making more, cheaper, places available to parents, with nowhere near enough attention paid to whether or not these places are of good enough quality. As this report highlights, early years education can have a significantly positive impact on children’s long term attainment, but only if the quality of the services being provided is sufficiently high.?

‘With the rollout of the 30 hour “free childcare” offer just months away, many providers are struggling to see how they can continue to deliver high-quality care and education with the funding currently available. It’s clear that the Government needs to take serious note of this report, and recognise that investing the bare minimum into such a vital sector simply isn’t good enough.’?

He added that there should be a rethink of the eligibility criteria for the 30 hours, which currently entitles working parents earning up to £100,000 each to benefit.

‘The OECD report rightly argues that when it comes to early years care and education, real efforts must be made to reach out to the most deprived families – and yet the fact remains that these are the very families who are likely to gain little to no benefit from current government early years policies,’ he said.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, ‘NDNA agrees with many findings of the OECD report, especially that early education is beneficial for both children and their parents.

‘Moving to an additional 15 funded hours in England – with plans in place for Scotland and Wales – is primarily aimed at supporting working families. But as this report confirms, the Government must inject sufficient investment to ensure high quality early education and childcare to make this policy a success.

‘NDNA welcomes new research, particularly any reports which highlight the importance of early education and challenges facing childcare providers.’

Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, ‘With the implementation of 30 hours of funded early education just weeks away and the Government currently considering how it might change primary assessment in England, this report make clear that investment in high quality early education and ensuring early years pedagogy continues into the first years of a child’s school, are the foundations for their success later in life.

‘PACEY see this as further evidence that more early years funding is needed to ensure high quality experiences for children and government should ensure, through its consultation on assessment, that the EYFS is not only maintained but extended into Year 1.’

In response to the OECD report, a Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Every child should get a world-class education at every stage of their life, and the OECD’s reports are further evidence that access to high-quality early education can improve a child’s outcomes later in life.

'We are investing more than ever before into childcare - £6 billion per year by 2020 – and doubling our existing offer of free childcare for all 3 and 4-year-olds to 30 hours for working parents. We are also supporting the most disadvantaged families with 15 free hours per week for 2-year-olds, our pupil premium which is worth over £300 a year per child and our new Disability Access Fund, providing £615 per eligible child.

'The number of early years providers rated good or outstanding remains at a record high, and we have also strengthened the duty on councils to publish up-to-date information about all the types of childcare available in their area to help parents make informed decisions.'

  • For more on 'Starting Strong 2017', see the next issue of Nursery World, out on Monday.

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