Think-Ed: ECE and the performance of 15 year olds

Stuart Middleton
7 February 2011

Hey, wait minute. For a number of years I have extolled the critical importance of early childhood education in terms of educational advancement and achievement. Two years of quality early childhood (i.e. 15 hours a week) would lead to such gains, I argued. This was on the evidence of research in the USA.

There is widespread agreement with this internationally. A Labour MP in Britain is arguing at the moment that early education will improve later school performance.

But, adopting its right of centre position and in order to challenge this MP, The Spectator weekly has recently published a table that, it suggests, shows otherwise. Here is that table:

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths (age 15) (Rank)
100% France 497  (6)
89% Sweden 494  (7)
87% Germany 513  (5)
83% UK 492  (8)
75% Japan 529  (3)
44% Finland 541  (1)
36% US 487  (9)
09% Switzerland 534  (2)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4)


Well, I thought, that is because it is mathematics and there could be many explanations why there is no correlation between access to ECE and later performance in mathematics. The story would be very different, I thought, if we also included Literacy and Science. So I added them to the chart.

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths at age 15 (Rank in list)  PISA Score in Literacy at age 15 (Rank in list) PISA Score in Science at age 15 (Rank in list)
100% France 497  (6) 496  (9) 498  (8)
89% Sweden 494  (7) 497  (7=) 495  (9)
87% Germany 513  (5) 497  (7=) 520  (4)
83% UK 492  (8) 500  (5=) 514  (6)
75% Japan 529  (3) 520  (2) 539  (2)
44% Finland 541  (1) 536  (1) 554  (1)
36% US 487  (9) 500  (5=) 502  (7)
09% Switzerland 534  (2) 501  (4) 517  (5)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4) 508  (3) 522  (3)


Just add a further bit of interest I added a line for New Zealand:

95% New Zealand  519  (5) 521  (2) 532  (2)


Of course this might all add up to nothing very much at all as is so usual in the popular media. The Netherlands rates well in this exercise but this conveniently ignores the fact that the system in that country has a “Mother and Child Health Care” programme that is universal and that 99% of all four year olds are voluntarily enrolled in primary schools (the legal school starting age is 5 years)

Then, this type of reporting also ignores that coarse nature of such a statistic as participation. Take New Zealand as an example. We might feel quite proud of our 95% rate but this is not evenly apparent across the system. Historically, Maori and Pacific Islands children have had lower access to early childhood education while the waged white middle classes have had both easy access and high quality provision. This is a fact and a trend that successive governments have always grappled with and it was exacerbated by the removal, for instance, of the targeting of the 20 free hours provision.

So let’s be impressed by Finland – only 44% participation The Spectator tells us but top of each category for achievement among the count rues in this survey (actually they did well in the whole PISA lists!). In Finland school starts at 7 years (but you can start at 6 years). About 75% of young ones in Finland have a significant exposure to day care and there is almost full enrolment in the pre-school classes at ages 6-7.

Reports such as that in The Spectator do not grapple with other issues – the extent to which the ECE curriculum is related to that of primary schools and premised on the fact that ECE should be preparing students for primary school. They don’t focus on the extent to which staff in formal pre-school classes are qualified (Finland has 100% degree qualified many up to Masters level!). They don’t report of the size of the tale of educational disadvantage and failure in the respective countries. Finland has a short tale we have a very long tale.

Stories such as this one in The Spectator start off by being political and never rise above the opportunity to take a few cheap shots. The key issue is to work towards quality early childhood provision for all students and perhaps a clearer distinction between day care and more formal ECE. I suspect that currently a disproportionate slice of the ECE resources are going to those whose focus is day care rather than ECE while those who might benefit from ECE are missing out.

I have long thought that adding ECE to primary schools was a possible and desirable way forward. But even if it were the same old sector division would arm themselves for war and protect their territory. It is not only the secondary / tertiary divisions that stop us being internationally competitive!

There are pockets in the community where access is very low indeed, perhaps as low as 40%. Whatever league tables we produce, this is a statistic that is intolerable in a developed, blessed and, in better times, rich country.

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