The UK is "bottom of the league" when it comes to the amount of free early education it provides, and government plans to double the hours available are unlikely to help disadvantaged children, OECD education director Andreas Schleicher has said.
Speaking at the London launch of two OECD reports on early years, Starting Strong 2017 and Transitions from Early Childhood Education and Care to Primary Education, Mr Schleicher highlighted that England offered less free early education to three-year-olds, at just 15 hours a week, than any other developed country.
And when the offer is extended to 30 hours a week for working parents, from September, this will only bring England up to the international average.
"From a child development perspective, I think disadvantage should be a more important criteria for ensuring high-quality early childhood education and care than employment," Mr Schleicher said after the event.
"Consider where you are now, at the bottom of the league in intensity [number of hours] – 30 hours is going to double that. Still the equity consideration is serious...as it stands, it’s only relating to those who are in employment.
"Children who are most disadvantaged will benefit the most from high-quality early childhood education and care, the evidence is clear on that, and the UK as a whole would benefit enormously from giving those children a good start."
Case for public investment 'very strong'
The report states that early years education has experienced "a surge of policy attention” in recent decades, with universal access to at least one year of pre-primary education becoming the norm in developed countries.
But it warns that the wages of graduates who work in pre-schools are still likely to be below those of other graduates and that universal access to early education does not guarantee high-quality early education.
Data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows the effect of attending early years education for at least two years was still evident at age 15 – boosting science scores by the equivalent of six months.
But while the benefits are greater for disadvantaged children, in many countries they were less likely to be enrolled in pre-school, meaning that early years systems tended to reinforce rather than mitigate equity
In the UK, it was very hard for parents to find their way around the “fragmented services”, said Mr Schleicher.
And the UK also has one of the highest proportions of parental contributions – parents fund around one-third of the cost of early years’ provision.
“In a way there is a stronger case for public investment in early childhood education and care than in secondary school. In secondary schooling, if 30 per cent of the cost of schooling was paid for by families, you would say ‘how can this be?' But it seems the only place where you can ask for fees, is actually when children are very small, but I think it is the case for public investment is very strong in this area,” he said.
'Go back and look again'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “The OECD report rightly argues that when it comes to early years care and education, real efforts must be made to reach out to the most deprived families – and yet the fact remains that these are the very families who are likely to gain little to no benefit from current government early years policies.”
Anne Heavey, education policy advisor at the ATL, said: "The most powerful thing to come from this report is the need to make sure every child can benefit from 30 hours of early education.
"If we entrench disadvantage by only middle class [children] having access to 30 hours, that defeats the object of early education. There is a very powerful case for the government to go back and look again."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child should get a world-class education at every stage of their life, and the OECD’s reports are further evidence that access to high-quality early education can improve a child’s outcomes later in life.
“We are investing more than ever before into childcare – £6 billion per year by 2020 – and doubling our existing offer of free childcare for all 3 and 4-year-olds to 30 hours for working parents.
"We are also supporting the most disadvantaged families with 15 free hours per week for 2-year-olds, our pupil premium which is worth over £300 a year per child and our new Disability Access Fund, providing £615 per eligible child.
“The number of early years providers rated good or outstanding remains at a record high, and we have also strengthened the duty on councils to publish up-to-date information about all the types of childcare available in their area to help parents make informed decisions."