Universal pre-school systems boost pupil scores and reduce educational inequalities, study finds

Press release: Monday, December 10, 2012

Institute of Education, University of London – (Written by David Budge)

The UK would have a much higher ranking in international pupil performance tables if a universal pre-school education system had been established in the 1990s, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, estimate that the UK’s 15-year-olds would have finished 13th out of more than 60 countries in the most recent PISA literacy test – rather than 25th – if they had all experienced more than a year of pre-schooling.

The calculation is based on an analysis of the test scores and early educational experiences of 12,179 pupils in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who took part in the 2009 PISA reading assessment. The test was conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and was taken by pupils in 482 UK schools.

The IOE study also confirms that while all social groups benefit from pre-school provision, children from the lowest socio-economic groups gain most from universal schemes. This is because in the UK, and most other countries, it is the poorest children, and those from immigrant backgrounds, who have traditionally been least likely to receive pre-school education.

Only 54 per cent of the UK PISA candidates in the bottom socio-economic group had received pre-school education, compared with 73 per cent in the most advantaged group.

The study’s findings provide support for the coalition government’s decision to extend pre-school provision to 130,000 two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families from September 2013. A further 130,000 two-year-olds from poorer families will be offered 15 hours a week of free nursery education or care from September 2014. All three and four-year-olds in England are already entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year.

“We expect that this rise in free provision for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will increase their literacy attainments at age 15 and will reduce inequalities in educational performance scores between children from different social backgrounds,” say the study’s authors, Dr Tarek Mostafa and Professor Andy Green. “It will help to develop children’s cognitive skills at the formation stage before they become resistant to change.”

The researchers also looked at the pre-school experiences of the 4,567 Swedish children from 189 schools who took the 2009 PISA test. This exercise showed that Sweden could have climbed seven places in the PISA table – to 12th — if there had been a universal pre-school scheme in the 1990s.

Mostafa and Green have also calculated that in both England and Sweden the score gaps between different social-class groups could have been minimized if all children – except the most advantaged 30 per cent – had been offered high quality pre-school provision. However, they acknowledge that such a strategy would be socially divisive.

A universal scheme, on the other hand, would help to maintain a sense of solidarity among different social groups. It would also be fairer than the socially-skewed system that existed in both countries in the 1990s. Its only disadvantage is cost, they say. Ensuring that every child received pre-school education would be expensive.

“We decided to compare two countries which are supposed to be very different in terms of their approach to education to see whether the effects of universal pre-school education would be similar,” the researchers explain. “Surprisingly, they are – both in terms of raising national averages and in helping to equalise educational outcomes. The latter finding is, in a sense, especially significant as it has not been clear until now that high participation rates lead to more equal educational outcomes. This study confirms that they do.”

Further analysis of the PISA data also suggests that other countries with very different education systems — Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada and Spain — would also have witnessed the same positive effects. Again, this was largely because in each of these countries children from poorer backgrounds have also been less likely to experience pre-school education.

The researchers accept that over the past 10 years the debate has shifted from whether children should receive a year of pre-schooling to whether they should have two, three or four years. But they believe that the basic message of their study – that universal pre-school schemes raise standards and equalise outcomes – remains true.

They also point out that more equal distributions of skills and qualifications amongst adults – something that a universal pre-school system should help to bring about — are associated with more equal incomes. “These, in turn, are associated with a wide range of social benefits, including better public health, lower crime rates and higher levels of trust,” they add.

Mostafa, T. and Green, A. (2012) Measuring the Impact of Universal Pre-School Education and Care on Literacy Performance Scores, is published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES), an IOE research centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The paper is available from: http://www.llakes.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/36.-Mostafa-Green.pdf

Further information

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530
075 3186 4481

Notes for editors

1. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, which are conducted every three years, measure the “functional ability” of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. To date, more than 70 countries and economies have participated in PISA. The 2009 survey included a city (Shanghai), a special administrative region (Hong Kong) and a city state (Singapore) as well as nations.

2. The UK breakdown of the total numbers of schools and pupils taking part in the 2009 PISA literacy tests is as follows: England (165 schools/4,081 pupils); Wales (132 schools/3,270 pupils); Scotland (98 schools/2,631 pupils); Northern Ireland (87 schools/2,197 pupils).

3. In the UK and Sweden, the proportion of 2009 PISA candidates who received more than a year of pre-school education in the 1990s was almost identical – 64.7 per cent in the UK and 64.9 per cent in Sweden. However, children in the UK were likely to experience two years of pre-school provision while those in Sweden had up to four years.

4. In a research paper published last year Mostafa and Green noted that pre-school provision does not necessarily equalise educational outcomes because individuals from each social group tend to benefit by the same amount. The logic of this argument still holds – analyses of PISA data conducted by the OECD have reached much the same conclusion. However, in reality, as their new study points out, participation in pre-school education and care has tended to be skewed towards higher social groups. Extending pre-school provision through universal schemes would therefore equalise outcomes.

5. LLAKES researchers are studying the bonds holding together different societies, and the role that education systems play in promoting – or undermining – social cohesion. The research brings together the findings from different social science disciplines and uses a variety of empirical methods and data sources to explore these issues. Further information from www.llakes.org

6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk

7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk


Preschool Education and Care: a Win-Win Policy

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green suggests that preschool education and care has a positive effect on female employment and on educational performance at the age of 15, but it does not help close the gap between poorer students and their peers.

Debates about policy frequently involve identifying social and economic trade-offs. A policy which is designed to boost economic competitiveness may have negative social consequences or, conversely, policies designed to enhance social cohesion may come at a high economic cost. The tensions between economic and social goals seem particularly evident in times of economic austerity. However, social scientists occasionally identify policies which they claim would have clear benefits, both on the economic and social side. Pre-primary education and care (PSEC) is one such policy area.

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green showed clearly that PSEC opens the doors of employment for women. Affordable and accessible pre-school provision frees up mothers of young children to undertake paid work and is thus likely to increase the employment rates of women in general. Raising rates of employment makes an important contribution to raising GDP per capita and improving living standards. At the same time participation in PSEC is held to improve the cognitive abilities of young children. These gains would come at little net costs since they are off-set by the increases in productivity and in tax revenues which will accrue.

We used two datasets: The first is a macro dataset that covers Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA from 1980 to 2008. We included a large number of determinants of employment. These determinants are: PSEC, expenditure on unemployment (welfare), rigidity of employment, union coverage, coordinated wage bargaining, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate, the rate of house ownership, and prison population. We also included the following variables: The degree of centralization of wage coordination (plant, firm, industry, or economy level), an index of employment protection, migrant stock, the ratio of minimum to average wage, taxes on labour, and union density. These variables did not have a significant effect on total or female employment and were taken out of the equation. The second is a micro-dataset: the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009). Using this data we assessed the impact of attending preschool education on the achievements of 15 year-olds in Mathematics in the same countries mentioned above.

The findings are interesting. An increase in PSEC of 10% (making pre-primary education affordable and accessible) increases female employment by 6.1%. This result is substantial and intuitive since women are the major benefiters of PSEC. For the rest of the variables the impact on female employment is as follows. Expenditure on employment (welfare), rigidity of employment, and union coverage have a negative and significant effect on it, while the impact of coordinated wage bargaining, house ownership, and prison population is positive and significant. By contrast, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate have an insignificant effect.

It is also worth noting that prison population accounts for a large difference in employment rates between the US and the rest of the countries. This happens because inmates are not considered as unemployed and as a consequence are taken out of the statistics. This artificially inflates employment rates in the US. Anecdotally, the prison population of the US is of 743 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, and in Sweden it is of 78 inmates. This corresponds to 12.6% difference in total employment rates in favour of the US. Such a higher level of employment is artificial and does not result in higher productivity and it has high social and economic costs related to the need to operate prisons and to incarcerate so many people.

When comparing the social democratic economies with the liberal ones, it is possible to see that they attain high levels of employment through different roads. In the liberal economies flexibility is paramount while in social democratic economies publicly provided PSEC and coordinated wage bargaining play an important role.

On the other hand, using the PISA 2009 dataset, we were able to prove that attending PSEC is positively and significantly related to performance scores on reading at the age of 15 for all social groups. Hence, the cross-national analysis does not support the argument that raising levels of PSEC participation necessarily reduces social gaps in attainment at 15 years of age. Participation in PSEC increases educational performance by similar amounts for children of all social groups in most countries. Social gaps in performance at 15 may only be mitigated by high levels of PSEC provision where children from less advantaged families get more – or better quality – provision.

The important implication of this for policy is that for PSEC to reduce social gaps in school attainment it is not sufficient merely to increase aggregate PSEC participation rates. It would require policies with a substantial bias towards children from disadvantaged families so that they receive more – or better quality – PSEC than children from other social groups. Policy in England seems to be moving in this direction. On Sept 19th 2011 the Department for Education set out plans to extend the existing free entitlement of PSEC to 15 hours per week, which currently applies to all three and four year olds, and to all disadvantaged two year olds (i.e. for those qualifying for free school means or in local authority care). This should increase PSEC participation rates for disadvantaged families. DFE estimates that approximately 140000 two year olds would be eligible to benefit. However, it remains to be seen whether this will bias participation towards this group sufficiently to reduce inequalities in learning outcomes.

This study also appeared on Montrose42’s blog, on Nursery World, and on the page of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the IOE.