Social-class gap in test scores persists despite huge investment in pre-school education

14 September 2011

Pre-school education has a positive long-term impact on children’s educational achievement but is not helping pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up with their middle-class peers, a new study has concluded.

Governments throughout the developed world have invested heavily in pre-school education and childcare, believing it is a “win-win” policy that enables poor children to get off to a good start and allows more women to return to the labour market.

Pre-school programmes are also said to equalise educational outcomes because disadvantaged children are thought to benefit more from such schemes than youngsters from more privileged backgrounds. This is sometimes cited as a key reason why Nordic countries saw increasing uniformity in test scores between the 1960s and 1990s.

The new study by Professor Andy Green and Dr Tarek Mostafa of the Institute of Education, University of London, confirms that early-years education raises attainment levels and opens employment doors for many women. The researchers analysed education and employment data for 16 countries, including the UK, and calculated that, on average, a 10 per cent increase in pre-school education attendance leads to a 6 per cent rise in female employment.

However, the study’s authors challenge the idea that pre-school education narrows the social-class divide in achievement at secondary school. “There is little evidence that inequalities in educational outcomes at 15 have reduced, even in countries where there are high levels of participation in pre-school programmes,” they will tell the European Conference on Educational Research in Berlin today. “Moreover, the effects seem to vary across countries. This may be partly because the quality of provision accessed by different social groups is not consistent.”

Green and Mostafa acknowledge that previous research – some based on evidence gathered by the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study – has shown that attending high-quality early-years programmes can result in significant cognitive gains. The benefits tend to be greatest in centres that integrate care and learning and where teachers are well-qualified.

The IOE researchers also note that the international PISA surveys of 15-year-olds conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have underlined the importance of pre-school education. In all of the 34 countries surveyed by the OECD, pupils who attended pre-primary education for more than one year out-performed those who did not.

Nevertheless, as Green and Mostafa point out, OECD surveys also show that disadvantaged and advantaged pupils usually benefit equally from pre-school education. Furthermore, children from higher social-class backgrounds are more likely to receive pre-school education than youngsters from poor and immigrant families — even in Scandinavia.

The IOE researchers’ new cross-country analysis of data gathered by both the OECD and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) shows that there is no apparent relationship between pre-school participation rates and social gaps in pupils’ reading performance at age 15.

Green and Mostafa argue that the continuing inequality of educational outcomes should be of concern to countries such as the UK. “More equal distributions of skills and qualifications among adults are associated with more equal income distributions and these, in turn, are associated with a wide range of social gains, such as better public health, lower rates of crime and higher levels of trust,” they say.

The UK currently has relatively low enrolment rates in pre-school education and large social gaps in achievement at 15. “Our findings suggest that pre-school education will only help to close these gaps at 15 if children from less advantaged backgrounds receive either more, or better quality, provision,” they add. “This is a tall order since even the Scandinavian countries do not seem to have achieved this. In fact, with the rolling back of the Sure Start programme the chances of lower income families accessing high quality pre-school education in this country are likely to diminish.”

“Pre-school education and care – a ‘win-win’ policy?” will be presented today at the ECER conference in the Freie Universität Berlin. Professor Green is director of the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES), which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Dr Mostafa is a research officer at the centre.


Further information


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Notes for editors

  1. The paper by Professor Green and Dr Mostafa analyses economic, employment and education data on the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. The researchers also compared pre-school participation rates and educational outcomes in 33 countries.
  2. The European Conference on Educational Research is the annual meeting of the European Educational Research Association. This year’s conference is being held from September 12 and 16 and is focusing on urban education.
  3. All three and four year olds in England are currently entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year. In Wales, children of this age are eligible for at least 10 hours a week of free education, although many areas offer 12.5 hours a week. In Scotland all education authorities must offer three and four-year-olds 475 hours of pre-school education a year, usually delivered as five 2.5 hour sessions per week. In Northern Ireland, children are offered a year of free pre-school education in the year before they start full-time education.
  4. LLAKES is based at the Institute of Education, University of London. LLAKES researchers are studying the bonds holding together different societies, and the role that education systems play in promoting – or undermining – social cohesion. The research brings together the findings from different social science disciplines and uses a variety of empirical methods and data sources to explore these issues.
  5. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at
  7. The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is a multi-disciplinary research project following the lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000/1. It is the most recent of Britain’s world-renowned national longitudinal birth cohort studies. The study has been tracking the Millennium children through their early childhood years and plans to follow them into adulthood. The four surveys of MCS cohort members carried out so far – at age nine months, three, five and seven years – have built up a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. They have also amassed a vast amount of information on the children’s siblings and parents. The study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of Government departments and the Wellcome Trust. The study’s next survey is planned for 2012.

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