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Home Opinion Busting the ‘early intervention’ myth
Social mobility • Women • Preschooling

Busting the ‘early intervention’ myth

Alison Wolf - 27 November 2014

There is near political consensus that a focus on preschool education is beneficial both to social mobility and helping women remain in the workforce. Is it time we re-evaluated our priorities?

Over the last 25 years, a strong consensus has developed in support of state-funded early childhood education for all. There have been two drivers at work. The first was and is the desire to equalise opportunities for all the nation’s children, and to do so before huge gaps open up between the more and less advantaged. The second was and is the desire to help women to remain in, or return to the workforce.
As a result the UK has moved from being one of the lowest spenders on pre-school in the whole OECD to being the second largest spender, just after Norway.  Politicians are now lining up to promise yet more of the same. Should they instead be calling a halt, and a shift to other spending priorities? Yes, on the evidence, they probably should.

It is increasingly clear that we have not achieved the equalising of educational attainment that was promised. And among mothers of very young children, current arrangements do little to raise workforce participation. Near-universal support for more of the same looks less and less sensible, especially at a time of fiscal pressure.

A focus on early education as a way to equalise opportunity and outcomes is long-standing. The US government spent large sums of money in the 1960s on Head Start programmes for disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds, including funding a number of very carefully designed programmes, studied in detail by academic researchers. The nation-wide Head Start programme continues to this day. But what shot pre-schooling into pole position as everyone’s favourite intervention was one tiny programme among those 1960s experiments.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool study involved 123 low-income pre-schoolers: half got places on the programme, half did not, and they have all been followed ever since. Decades afterwards, there are still major and significant differences between the adults who were in the programme and those who were not . They differ in educational success, income, staying out of jail and in their mental health. The tiny size of the group makes these results even more remarkable, because the differences have to be very large to be statistically significant.

This result – as famous in the UK as in the US – seemed to offer a genuine breakthrough for social policy. Jim Heckman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist, argued, with huge influence, that investing in early education – doing your spending early on rather than later – made total economic sense, by raising overall employment and incomes, and reducing the costs of welfare and crime.  In the UK, research studies also indicated that, compared to children who stayed entirely at home, those who attended good quality pre-school started school better prepared both socially and cognitively, and were still ahead of the stay-at-home children at the age of seven.
Unsurprisingly, the incoming Labour government of 1997 embarked on a huge increase in pre-school spending.  Sure Start was launched in 1998, integrating childcare, early learning and direct support for mothers in order to enhance opportunities in disadvantaged areas.  There is now universal pre-school provision for three- and four-year-olds. There is extended full day care for the very poor (largely single mothers), designed to help them into employment. And now every major UK party is engaged in a pre-election arms race of pledges to increase free childcare and pre-school hours. This may partly be a cynical contest for working mothers’ votes; but it also reflects a conviction that this will be a progressive and effective use of funds. And that is less and less obvious.

As so often, it has been difficult-to-impossible to scale up from a path-breaking innovation to a large-scale programme. The Perry Preschool approach has been analysed exhaustively, but no one has succeeded in replicating it on a large scale. Head Start has and is doing little to improve the school performance of disadvantaged US children, let alone narrow gaps.

Evaluations of Sure Start have found limited results (and none for children’s performance). The Institute for Fiscal Studies has demonstrated that introducing free early education for English 3-year-olds had very little impact on academic skills at age five, with none evident by age 11.

But of course pre-school education was not and is not just about narrowing the attainment gap between deprived and other five-year-olds. What about the benefit for mothers?

Childcare is a huge expense for working parents, and intrinsically more expensive the younger the child. Cheaper childcare polls well with parents of young children – why would it not? But are huge increases in childcare subsidies, and in public-sector and regulated facilities, effective ways to increase women’s working hours and ability to take a job?  The answer is no.

Increased spending may benefit some family budgets, but it has had almost no impact whatsoever on participation rates. As I have discovered in my own work, there is a big mismatch between the regular, organised schedules of formal preschools and nurseries and the flexibility that so much modern work demands.  The mothers who use organised childcare when their children are under five tend to be either the very poor, who get special aid, or the highly educated professionals, who work regular hours, whether part- or full-time, in stable jobs.

But in large and growing parts of the labour market, jobs are not like that.  The hours and even the locations change frequently, and people often work shifts. Huge numbers of women work part-time in such jobs: but to do so when their children are very young, they need, above all, flexible childcare. In pursuit of quality, the UK has increased regulation as well as spending, and driven many informal childminders out of the sector. As a policy for promoting female employment, current pre-school spending comes out as ineffective and pretty regressive.

None of this might matter if resources did not either. But a faith in early intervention also downgraded the value of other sorts of education. A major loser, in recent years, has been provision for less academic teenagers and adults. Further and adult education budgets have been cut and cut again, while in higher education full-time undergraduates have been the priority, while part-time and adult numbers plunged. Rather than pouring more and more money into pre-school provision, we need to revalue ‘second chance’ education. And we need to rebalance our spending priorities.

Alison Wolf is professor of public sector management at King’s College London and author of The XX Factor

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: equality , recession , labour market , pay gap , childcare , maternity pay , social mobility

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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