Breaking the cycle of disadvantage

Early Childhood interventions and progression to higher education in Europe

by Benoit Guerin

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The early years of childhood are crucial for the development of the cognitive and social-behavioural skills of an adult. Thus, they represent a unique challenge and opportunity to invest in children. Extensive research has shown that Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is effective in tackling the inequality which can tend to spring from different experiences during these early years, and that ECEC can help to break the cycle of disadvantage. Experts have concluded that most of the gaps in cognitive ability that partly explain discrepancies in adult outcomes already exist at the age of five, emphasising the crucial role of early intervention, and the relatively minor role of subsequent schooling by comparison.

One potential long-term measure of the success of ECEC is access to higher education, particularly for underrepresented groups, such as those from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. However, the magnitude of this unused potential has not yet been fully investigated in Europe, although the long-term returns of interventions and their ability to raise academic standards have been documented, as have the benefits of ECEC in the United States. What is clear is that in the long term, ECEC can boost the academic abilities of disadvantaged students, thus enabling them to pursue higher studies.

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The research described in this report was prepared for the European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion and was conducted by RAND Europe.

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