At the end of October, the OECD released its latest report, Improving Early Equity: From Evidence to Action, which uses findings from the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) to look at how early equity gaps can be closed.
The report shows that the learning gap between disadvantaged children and advantaged children is on average between eight to 20 months. This learning gap is evident in both cognitive and social-emotional skills. The report also notes that the magnitude of learning gaps between disadvantaged five-year-olds and advantaged five-year-olds is very similar to that between disadvantaged 15-year-old and advantaged 15-year-olds.
The report also details risk factors that are negatively associated with children’s early learning. These risk factors are low birth weight, learning difficulties, social-emotional difficulties, and a home language that is different from the language of the early years setting or school attended by the child. Disadvantaged children are more likely to experience these than advantaged ones. For example, 15.8% of disadvantaged children experience learning difficulties compared to just 6.7% of advantaged children. As well as that, 14.8% of disadvantaged children are more likely to experience social-emotional difficulties compared to just 6.6% of advantaged children.
The report notes that when children do not develop important early skills including emergent literacy or self-regulation, they face significant challenges in doing well at school and having positive outcomes in adulthood.
There is a minority of disadvantaged five-year-olds that are resilient and have learning outcomes that place them in the top quartile. Findings from the IELS show that one in five disadvantaged children have learning scores that place them in the top quartile of mental flexibility, social-emotional skills, and working memory.
Those resilient five-year-olds have a few factors in common that help them achieve equity. One of the most important factors is the quality of children’s home learning environments. This is the nature and frequency of parents’ active engagement with their children, especially in activities that develop oral language skills.
The participation of disadvantaged children in early childhood education and care is strongly linked with higher learning outcomes. This link is stronger than for advantaged children who take part in early childhood care and education. A build-up of positive factors, such as parental involvement in early childhood education and care, reading by parents to children, and a high number of books, can support disadvantaged children to reach a level of development on a par with more advantaged children.
The report shows that activities undertaken by parents with their children are notably related to their children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. Disadvantaged children that have strong home learning environments have learning outcomes that are above the mean for all children.
Participating in early childhood education and care can accelerate cognitive development. For disadvantaged children, participation is linked to positive gains across all learning domains especially emergent literacy and emergent numeracy. The report suggests that investments in early childhood care and education should be a critical part of a strategy to improve early equity. The report emphasises that the quality of early years care is important as high-quality provision can result in double the growth in children’s verbal comprehension, compared to just average quality.
The report notes that disadvantaged children whose parents are involved in their child’s centre or school have higher learning outcomes than children whose parents are not involved. A parent’s involvement in their child’s early years setting can be due to many factors. These include the policies and practices of the early years centre that encourage or discourage active parental involvement and parents’ working hours.
There are positive outcomes for advantaged children with positive outcomes whose parents are involved but the effects on cognitive development are more limited than those for disadvantaged children. Disadvantaged children are less likely to have a parent involved with their early years setting. The report details that 63% of disadvantaged children’s parents are involved compared to 86% of advantaged children’s parents.
Attending Early Years Settings is a Benefit
The report stresses that attending an Early Years setting can only benefit children if the approach taken is responsive to and effective for the variety of needs of children and their families. Data suggests that elements such as fostering a positive attitude towards learning, providing children with a level of choice and autonomy over their activities, and enabling children to play, should be central to a child-centred, empowering, and effective pedagogy.
This report highlights the importance of high-quality early learning and care to improve equity. Early Childhood Ireland has continually advocated for improvements in quality in early years and school-age care. This increase in funding from Budget 2023 must focus on the goal of achieving high-quality early childhood care and education.
If you have any questions on this latest report from the OECD or would like to engage with us, please contact our policy team.