Early learning gaps are stark, but can be successfully mitigated

OECD Early Learning and Child Well-being study

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Five-year-olds from disadvantaged families are already well behind more advantaged children in their learning and development. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

The world’s first international direct assessment of early learning and well-being of five-year-olds finds that gaps in early learning between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds are significant. The OECD study, which in its first wave covered Estonia, the United Kingdom and the United States, shows that differences are particularly pronounced in children’s language and numeracy skills and, while smaller, are still significant for their social-emotional outcomes. The differences in early literacy, for example, are equivalent to approximately one year of learning. This means that at five years of age, children from advantaged families are already around one year ahead of their less advantaged peers in a skill that is strongly predictive of their success in school.

The study suggests, however, that these differences can be successfully mitigated through:

  • providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds with access to high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC)
  • encouraging parents and other family members to read to children 5-7 days a week
  • giving children access to high numbers of children’s books, more than 100 is best
  • helping parents to be involved in their child’s ECEC centre or school
  • enabling children to participate in sporting and other community-based activities.

These simple actions are strongly linked to children’s learning outcomes. Children from poor families who are read to almost every day demonstrate much higher literacy skills than children from similar families who are never or rarely read to. Similarly, attending ECEC significantly reduces numeracy gaps.

Starting behind in the early years means staying behind – for individual children and for an education system as a whole.

This being said, children from poor homes don’t get the same learning opportunites as other children. They are less likely to attend ECEC, they have access to about half the number of children’s books as other children and they are much less likely to go to special activities such as swimming, dance or scouts.

The study also found clear gender differences among the 7 000 five-year-olds who participated in the study. Girls had stronger emergent literacy than boys in all three countries, in all socio-economic groups. In addition, parents and teachers reported girls as having higher self-regulation and social-emotional skills than boys. Girls were better able to identify others’ emotions, had higher prosocial skills and were less disruptive than boys. Yet girls and boys were equally likely to attend ECEC, be read to by their parents and attend special activities.

Starting behind in the early years means staying behind – for individual children and for an education system as a whole. While the most effective investment governments can make to enhance education outcomes is to provide a strong start in children’s early years, education systems may need to think laterally about how to reach children before they arrive at school. And this is likely to involve partnerships with parents and communities.

Education systems that orient their priorities from an institutional lens to children’s actual needs will have greater success overall and will be better able to achieve improved equity.

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