The socio-economic divide in pre-primary education

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

The metaphor “levelling the playing field” crops up a lot in discussions about pre-primary education.

As well it should: attendance in those programmes has been shown to improve education outcomes later on. But as this month’s PISA in Focus shows, not even a steamroller can level the playing field of formal education if disadvantaged students are sidelined from the beginning.

PISA consistently finds that 15-year-old students who had attended pre-primary education tend to perform better than those who had not attended pre-primary education, even after accounting for the students’ socio-economic status. 51 points – the equivalent of substantially more than a year of formal schooling.

In 2012, the vast majority of 15-year-old students in most PISA-participating countries and economies reported that they had attended pre-primary education; and PISA data confirm that enrolment in those programmes has grown over the past decade. In 2003, 69% of 15-year-olds across the OECD countries that have comparable data between 2003 and 2012 reported that they had attended pre-primary school for more than one year; in 2012, 75% of students reported so.

But PISA also finds that while 15-year-old students in 2012 were more likely than 15-year-olds in 2003 to have attended at least one year of pre-primary education, pre-primary enrolment is higher among advantaged students than disadvantaged students, and higher among students attending advantaged schools than those attending disadvantaged schools. In 2012, an average of 67% of disadvantaged students had attended pre-primary education for more than one year, while 82% of students in advantaged schools had done so.

This difference in enrolment between advantaged and disadvantaged students is seen in almost all PISA-participating countries and economies. It is largest – 48 percentage points – in Poland, and between 25 and 30 percentage points in Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Uruguay. This means that the students who could benefit the most from these programmes – those from disadvantaged backgrounds – are less likely to participate in them. This socio-economic divide widened in the Slovak Republic between 2003 and 2012 as it did, to a lesser extent, in Finland, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, Poland and the Russian Federation; it narrowed, however, in Germany, Korea, Macao-China, Portugal and Uruguay. 

That pre-primary enrolment rates are growing faster among advantaged students than among disadvantaged students signals that countries have to work harder to ensure that all families, particularly disadvantaged families, have access to high-quality pre-primary education, and to information about such programmes, near where they live. An investment in early education, both for parents and for governments, pays dividends later on in life. Which brings to mind another apt expression: “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 40 : Does pre-primary education reach those who need it most?
Photo credit: Kids Hands / @Shutterstock

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