Free pre-school year fails to narrow gap between children of different social classes

Children from better-off backgrounds kept advantage over poorer children, study funds

Children from better-off backgrounds fared better in areas such as social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, compared to those from poorer backgrounds. Photograph: Frank Miller

Children from better-off backgrounds fared better in areas such as social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, compared to those from poorer backgrounds. Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:03

The State-funded free pre-school year has failed to narrow the gap in outcomes for children from different social classes, new research shows.

The pre-school year – which costs about €175 million a year and is availed of by 65,000 children – was launched by the Government with the aim of improving early-years education for children, especially those in disadvantaged areas.

But the first major study into child outcomes from the scheme has found that social class, rather than pre-school, has been the biggest influence on children’s performance.

Children from better-off backgrounds fared better in areas such as social, emotional, language and cognitive skills, compared to those from poorer backgrounds.

By contrast, children from more disadvantaged backgrounds were found to lag behind in areas such as vocabulary and language-processing skills before they even started the free pre-school year.

These gaps remained unchanged or even widened during their time in pre-school.

Without remediation, the study says, these gaps are likely to persist throughout primary and secondary school and possibly into adulthood.

The findings are contained in an evaluation of early-years education in 11 projects across the State, including Dublin, Cork and Limerick, along with rural areas of Longford, Westmeath and Donegal.

The study, Evaluation of National Early Years Access Initiative and Siolta Quality Assurance Programme, was conducted by researchers Kieran McKeown, Trutz Haase and Jonathan Pratschke.

Case for earlier intervention

The findings have “radical implications” and support the case for earlier intervention, particularly where a child’s family circumstances are challenging, according to the report. “It also underlines why improving child outcomes and reducing socially generated gaps in child outcomes cannot be the sole responsibility of Ireland’s early-years system, even if it has a substantial and potentially more important role to play,” the study concludes.

International studies have shown that high-quality early childhood care and education programmes can significantly improve children’s outcomes in disadvantaged areas in the long term and deliver economic returns of up to €7 for every single euro invested.

These are typically high- quality, multiyear programmes that tend to include family support and related services for vulnerable parents.

The Irish study did not carry out observations of the quality of practice, so evaluators were not in a position to distinguish high-quality from low-quality practice.

But the study notes: “It is clear that the free pre-school year does not meet the standard of these landmark programmes and, for that reason, will only deliver the expected economic return on investment if, but only if, that investment is sufficient to produce a programme of equivalent standard.”

Overall, the study says that all children surveyed improved their social and emotional skills, especially their language and cognitive skills, during the pre-school year.

However, without a group to compare against – 95 per cent of children attend the free pre-school year – it is impossible to know how much of this improvement was related to natural child development or to the impact of pre-school.

The findings may be seized on by some campaigners as a reason to extend the free pre-school year by a further 12 months.

The Government’s official position is that it supports a second free pre-school year, but this depends on improvements in the quality of existing pre-school services and on the availability of sufficient resources.

It points to its investment in early-intervention projects in disadvantaged areas as a sign of its focus on narrowing the gap in outcomes for children.

These projects – known as area-based childhood programmes – are running in 13 areas across the State and are co-funded by the Government and Atlantic Philanthropies.