How can equity in children’s early learning be achieved?

By Rowena Phair

Deputy Head of Division, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Children from disadvantaged families face significant development gaps by the age of five.
– These gaps are unlikely to close during schooling.
– Education leaders and policy makers can, however, take action to reduce or prevent these gaps, and provide a level playing field for all children.

Children from socio-economically disadvantaged families face equity gaps before they even start formal education. New evidence from the OECD’s International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study shows that by the age of five, disadvantaged children are already behind more advantaged children by 12 months of development. This is an enormous gap for any five-year-old to close, and most will not do so.

Yet early equity can be achieved. OECD data shows that children from disadvantaged families can reach the same levels of development as children from advantaged families, as illustrated below.

Figure 1: Building resilience and early equity

Source: OECD (2020); OECD International Early Leaning Survey 2018 database (accessed on 6 June 2022).

OECD evidence points to four actions that education leaders and policy makers can take to improve early equity:

  • Provide all disadvantaged children with access to early childhood education and care (ECEC)
  • Put measures in place to ensure the provision of ECEC is of high quality, and responsive to the needs of children and their families
  • Support strong links between ECEC centres/schools and parents
  • Improve the quality of children’s home learning environments.

While high-quality ECEC provides clear benefits for disadvantaged children, the provision of ECEC alone is not enough to achieve early equity. The effects of ECEC, however, can be enhanced if it is of high quality and if teachers and parents work in partnership to support strong child development.

The role played by children’s home learning environments is critical, but few countries have systemic approaches to supporting parents to give their children the best possible start in life. The activities that parents undertake with their children that are associated with better early learning outcomes include regularly reading and having back-and-forth conversations with children, and ensuring they have access to children’s books.

Thus, multiple actions are required to provide a level playing field for disadvantaged children. This requires education leaders and policy makers to think outside existing institutional frameworks. That way every child can have a strong early start, and the chance to succeed in school and beyond.

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Photo: ShutterStock/Robert Kneschke