Evolving attitudes towards early childhood education

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education and Skills

I was in Berlin recently to launch the German edition of Starting Strong III at an international conference on early childhood education and care and was struck by the difference in attitudes I found there compared to even a decade ago. Given the effects of the economic crisis and the ageing of European populations, more governments are realising that it is becoming unsustainable to continue to expect – and encourage – young mothers to stay at home with their children until the age of five or six, when primary school begins. Eight or nine years ago, Germany, to name just one country, hadn’t yet come to grips with the broader role that young mothers could play in society. The German Lander have come to agree with the federal government that as of August 1, 2013 all parents should have the right to enroll their children at the age of one.

Of course, early childhood education is not just about encouraging half of the adult population to enter the labour market; it’s about giving children a better chance to succeed later on. Results from PISA show that 15-year-old students who attended pre-primary education for more than one year score higher in the PISA reading test than their peers who did not attend. In Germany, for example, the difference between the two groups in reading performance in the 2009 assessment was the equivalent of one year of schooling, even after taking students’ socio-economic backgrounds into account.

That is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of high-quality pre-primary education: in theory, it gives all children equal opportunities to begin to develop their literacy, numeracy and social skills, regardless of their family’s income. If conceived with some imagination, these programmes can make an enormous difference in the lives of disadvantaged families. For example, New Zealand developed early education programmes, targeted to families with low levels of education, that include an adult-education component. In regions where these programmes are offered, enrolment of disadvantaged children – who benefit the most from these kinds of activities – has grown considerably.

Yet while participation rates in pre-primary education are rising, there are some worrying trends in how these programmes are financed and delivered. In OECD countries, more than 18% of total spending on pre-primary education (and more than 25% in Germany) comes from private sources – a far higher rate than for other levels of education. Since most of that money comes from households, it isn’t surprising that many people are concerned that access to early childhood education isn’t as equitable as it could and should be. And as any young parent trying to find a place for their child in one of these programmes knows, all programmes are not equal when it comes to quality. This is where Starting Strong III can help. It provides a toolkit for countries to use to improve the quality of their early childhood education programmes.

Over the next couple of years, the OECD will be working to define how to measure and assess the quality of the education provided in these programmes, which will be the first step towards ensuring that high-quality pre-primary education is available to all. In the meantime, I’m encouraged to see so many governments not only acknowledging the importance of early childhood education but making it a top priority on their agendas. It has taken a while, but I think we all now realise that high-quality pre-primary education is a public good that demands our critical attention and unstinting support.

Find out more on: OECD work on Early Childhood Education and Care
Photo credit: Small and colourful table and chairs for little kids / Shutterstock

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