The evidence on the impact of early childhood education and care (ECEC) for children has grown over the past years, with longitudinal studies showing its long-term benefits, and the high cost of not dealing with inequality from an early age. The European Commission has emphasised the importance of ‘Investing in Children’ to break the ‘cycle of disadvantage’, partly by setting up the Social Investment Package, and as part of that, the European Platform for Investing in Children, which recently published a policy brief on the importance of ECEC and its relation to access to higher education as a means of favouring social mobility.
Early childhood education and care (ECEC) can help reduce inequalities associated with a child’s background, and can increase the productivity of society as a whole, notably by improving the educational outcomes of children. The cycle of disadvantage favours the transmission of inequality between generations. In short, children born into lower income families are more likely to be insufficiently stimulated intellectually. This then develops into poorer cognitive and social development, which then contributes to poorer educational achievement and lower levels of participation in higher education, which then ultimately affects career prospects and increases the likelihood that children from disadvantaged backgrounds become disadvantaged adults.
Yet, interest in ECEC has grown among policymakers since evidence indicates that it can help tackle inequality with significant long term returns on investment. The brain’s fast development and malleability during the earliest years of life provides a unique window of opportunity for investing in children. Data indicates that early years education (particularly for disadvantaged children) plays a crucial role in securing a good start in life, notably in terms of school preparedness and success in primary school and beyond, especially for children aged 3 and over. Evidence on ECEC programs with long-term follow up from the United States, such as High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, which focused on disadvantaged children in the 1970s found that 70 per cent of the group that had received high-quality childcare planned to graduate from college, compared to 36 per cent of those who had not.
However, Europe faces two main challenges when it comes to ECEC in Europe. First, ECEC provision is unequal across the EU with coverage in some countries being universal, in contrast to other EU Member States. Second, in order to be effective, ECEC needs to meet certain criteria. Effective ECEC needs to be good quality, particularly since poor-quality ECEC may actually result in negative outcomes for children from lower-income backgrounds. In addition, ECEC needs to be effectively targeted, particularly to children at risk due to their disadvantaged background which does not adequately stimulate their development. Also, a range of other factors affect the impact of ECEC, ranging from the length of intensive ECEC periods, but also staff training.
Other challenges exist with regard to university access. For instance, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have disproportionally low chances of accessing higher education in Europe; however, the underrepresentation of these students varies by country. On the one hand, ECEC can help increase ‘supply’ levels by enabling disadvantaged children to reach a higher academic potential which could enable them to attend university. In addition, higher education institutions could deal with the ‘demand’ side, specifically by convincing able students that they should consider studying at university.
Given the promise and challenges linked to ECEC, it seems that one way for governments to further commit to breaking the cycle of disadvantage would be to develop ambitious indicators and policy goals which link ECEC provision for underrepresented groups to access to higher education.