Poorer children gain most from universal childcare

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Children from immigrant and disadvantaged backgrounds benefit most from universal childcare but are least likely to access it, research has found.


Free childcare benefits children from disadvantaged families more than their better-off peers

A study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at University College London has found that while universal childcare from the age of three improves the school readiness of children from immigrant and disadvantaged families, it only has a modest impact on children from more well-off backgrounds.

The study, to be published in the Journal of Political Economy, also said children from immigrant and disadvantaged families are less likely to use childcare places, and suggested a variety of reasons for this:

  • immigrant and disadvantaged families may be more critical of pre-school programmes and not adequately informed about the positive effects of early childcare attendance
  • fees relative to household income tend to be higher for families from lower socio-economic backgrounds
  • native parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to work and therefore to use childcare

The research is based on German administrative data from between 1994 and 2002. A reform entitling all children to a subsidised part-time childcare place from their third birthday led to a large expansion in childcare places in Germany during the 1990s.

The researchers warned that although the data used was from Germany, the findings could equally be applied to England, where the 30 hours offer may not succeed in attracting significant numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and therefore could fail to radically improve children’s outcomes.

‘Tying access to free childcare to mothers’ employment status, as recently implemented in England, may well give mothers incentives to return to work and thereby promote gender equality, but it may not draw those children into childcare who would benefit the most,’ said co-author Dr Anna Raute of Queen Mary University of London.

Cprofessoro-author Christian Dustmann, director of CReAM and professor of economics at UCL, added, ‘Attending childcare early nearly eliminates the difference between immigrant and native children when it comes to readiness for school. Yet, despite the clear benefit for children from immigrant and disadvantaged backgrounds who gain the most from attending formalised childcare, they are substantially less likely to enter early childcare.’

The study, ‘Who benefits from universal child care? Estimating marginal returns to early child care attendance’ by Thomas Cornelissen, Christian Dustmann, Anna Raute and Uta Schönberg is published as CReAM Discussion Paper No. 08/18 and is available at http://www.cream-migration.org/publ_uploads/CDP_08_18.pdf

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