When working as an early education consultant in the UK my colleagues and I would often look to other countries for inspiration. We were in awe of the freedom and financial investment in early education in Scandinavia, drew on inspiration from Te Whariki the early childhood curriculum of New Zealand and were in awe of the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy. We recognised the investment in early education in the UK but were aware that there were also many things that could be improved.
On moving to the US, I expected early education to be different but was struck by the number of commonplace things from UK early education that were seen as new and radical here. Washington State where I live has invested a huge amount of resources to early education but in 2011 only 8% of 4 year olds and 2% of 3 year olds were enrolled in state pre-school programmes (NIEER The State of Pre-school 2011). I now realise that I had much to be grateful for in the UK. My 3-year-old had 15 hours of state funded pre-schooling per week and I could use this flexibly. I knew that I could find a quality pre-school without having to put my hand in my pocket.
While weighing up the different systems I came across a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Starting Well – Benchmarking Early Education Across the World. The EIU was commissioned to produce an index ranking pre-school provision across 45 countries. The Index looks at provision for children aged between 3 and 6, considering availability, affordability and quality of pre-school environments. Alongside the data, experts were interviewed and research reviewed to highlight key issues.
It will not come as a surprise that Finland, Sweden and Norway top the list due to long-term investment and prioritisation of Early Education which is embedded in their culture. What did come as a surprise however is that the UK is in fourth place. A number of factors contribute to the UK’s high-ranking:-
- A legal right to pre-school education
- A well-defined curriculum and health and safety standards
- parental involvement
- an environment that ensures children are healthy and well nourished when they enter school.
The US ranks 24th in the Index. There are many quality pre-schools in the US but these are not available or affordable to everyone and the quality of provision is variable. A growing body of evidence suggests that investment in early education reduces costs later in the education system. The success of many European countries lies in the recognition of the value of early education meaning that even during recession, funding is unlikely to be pulled. In countries such as the US where the government has not yet accepted responsibility for early education, budget deficits lead to cuts in early education funding.
In general the countries that acknowledge the importance of early education are also those with the most affordable pre-schools. Chile(20th in the index) is a lower-income country yet 85 % of 3 year olds and 90% of 4 year-olds attend a pre-school of some kind. Public pre-school provision is free. The funding has been put into providing provision but as yet has not been assigned to quality. Teachers are not well qualified and there are no quality guidelines which drags the country down in the index.
The counties that rate highest in quality are those that pay the highest salaries and recruit the most highly qualified teachers. The other factor defining quality is the availability of well-defined guidelines and mechanisms for monitoring and supporting these, Finland, France, Sweden, New Zealand and the UK score highest on these points. New Zealand’s curriculum Te Whariki is successful because it embodies the values of its country and culture, many countries use it as a benchmark when designing their own curriculum. High performing countries in this measure also recognise the importance of Parental engagement. Belgium scores highly based on its statutory responsibility to work with parents and children and offer parenting programmes and support.
Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators is an annual international comparison of education. The report states that whereas patterns of enrolment for primary and secondary education are similar throughout the OECD, there is significant variation in early childhood education programmes. 79% of 4 year olds in OECD countries and 83% of those in the European Union are enrolled in early education programmes, this ranges from 95% in the UK, New Zealand, Norway and France to less than 60% in Australia, Canada, Brazil and Greece. OECD research found that demand for early childhood education for children aged 3 and under far outstripped supply. The research backs up findings in the Economist’s study that the absence of public funding leads to a greater risk of variable quality or makes it only affordable to affluent families. In most European countries universal education for 3 to 6 year olds is generally accepted, in most of these countries early education is free and provided in school.
I am still coming to terms with living in a country where pre-school is a luxury for affluent parents rather than a right for all children. There are many noteworthy programmes for the most needy children but a huge void for any families in the middle. There has been a lot of change in UK early education during the last 5 years and that has lead to a level of unease amongst professionals. Research like the above is sobering and helps me to realise how far we have come.