How Early Childhood Education and Care Can Help to Tackle the Impact of Childhood Disadvantage


Aug 20, 2018

Teacher and children in school

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This commentary originally appeared on Early Intervention Foundation on August 8, 2018.

The early years of a child's life is a period of rapid and profound change. The potential of early childhood education and care (ECEC) to support child development, in particular that of children from a disadvantaged background, has long been recognised. In the UK, the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project (EPPSE) provides some indication that high-quality ECEC is associated with long-term improvements in outcomes, with particularly strong long-run effects for children with parents who have lower levels of qualifications.

The body of research into ECEC is broad and deep, drawing on multiple academic fields and philosophical schools of thought, and using a wide range of research methods. While an obvious strength, this richness and diversity can make the evidence base difficult to access, and challenging, especially for non-experts, to discern the strength of the evidence that underpins various claims. With this in mind we set out to produce a clear and accessible overview of the literature on effective pedagogy and practice, focusing on studies with high-quality empirical evidence of impact.

We believe this report is the first of its kind, and we have reviewed over 100 studies from the last 10 years which have used rigorous methods to assess impact. The majority of these studies come from the US, focus on children over the age of 3, and do not analyse the differential impact on disadvantaged groups or long-term impacts. This limits the generalisability of these findings to the UK and their applicability to the government's agenda on improving social mobility by reducing the social gradient of educational outcomes, and we make specific recommendations on research to address this.

However, our aim is to go beyond this and make recommendations which influence policy and practice directly, although the limitations of the evidence base makes this challenging. This is principally because most studies do not test specific pedagogical practices in isolation, and so do not allow us to easily identify the 'active ingredients' which make them work, limiting our ability to say with certainty what specific pedagogical practices have been shown to work. Nevertheless, this report adds to our knowledge of the wider literature on early years and child development, allowing us to make recommendations about the areas which show promise in terms of supporting the development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Disadvantaged children underperform educationally partly because on average they experience more risk factors, including poor parenting and home learning environments which impede their cognitive development. If the intention is that ECEC is to at least partially compensate for this, then in our view there are important principles to bear in mind:

  • Interventions which seek to address multiple causes of educational underperformance for disadvantaged children may have a better chance of success. EIF concludes in a forthcoming report on early childhood competencies that two-generation models of ECEC, supporting both parent and child, are a promising way of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, as they address multiple risk factors. Although the impact on parents and parenting behaviours has not been extensively evaluated to date, two-generation models that combine support for parents with enriching childcare for children seem well placed to enhance development. Such models provide stimulating and high-quality ECEC for children, and help parents to better engage with children's development. Head Start is a prominent example of a two-generational model. Our review shows that there are high-quality studies that evaluated Head Start, suggesting that a broad and holistic approach which combines delivery by well-qualified individuals with active screening and monitoring of children's progress can improve long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children.
  • The calibre of ECEC professionals likely matters. The skills of early years professionals are usually considered an element of structural quality, and so outside the scope of our review, but higher pre-service qualifications and in-service training have been found to be associated with the provision of higher-quality and stimulating ECEC activities. While further evaluation is needed of the relative benefits of using graduates or teachers to deliver ECEC and of the optimal level and type of in-service training in the UK context, there is reason to think that a greater focus on the skills of professionals could be a mechanism to deliver improvements in outcomes for disadvantaged children.

Our review offers a significant contribution to the field of what works in early years pedagogy and practice. Based on our findings we are able to make specific recommendations about what research is needed to significantly improve the evidence base in the UK. In this foreword, we also make recommendations about the ECEC workforce which draw from our knowledge beyond the review, but we feel if properly evaluated could make a significant contribution to the evidence on what works to improve educational outcomes for those born into disadvantaged circumstances.

Tom McBride is director of evidence at the Early Intervention Foundation and Julie Bélanger is a research leader at RAND Europe.