Skills gap widened by free year of preschool

Ireland’s free pre-school year widens differences in children’s language and cognitive skills, a ground-breaking study reveals.

All of the children improved but those with more skills at the start of the year tended to have even more at the end while those who were less able tended to remain in a weaker position at the end.

The study, published in the current edition of Irish Educational Studies, found that family background was the single biggest influence on children’s skills throughout the free pre-school year.

Family background referred to the mother’s education, occupation, and financial coping, as well as the child’s home learning environment and diet.

The report has questioned whether plans to introduce a second pre-school year would reduce the skills’ gap without targeting support at vulnerable families.

“The seeds of educational disadvantage have already taken root by the time the child enters the free pre-school year,” said the study’s lead author, social and economic research consultant Kieran McKeown.

The study states: “The broad parameters of a child’s progress during the free pre-school year have already been set by the child’s development during the previous three to four years.”

The report is also timely because the Government is planning to unveil a range of measures in the budget to support the parents of young children. It is understood that Children’s Minister James Reilly wants to introduce a second free pre-school year and after-school childcare services.

The free pre-school year was introduced in 2010. Between 2012 and 2013, when the study was conducted, the free pre-school year was provided to around 66,000 children at a cost of approximately €170m.

The study is one of the first to analyse outcomes in the free school year and was based on a sample of nearly 450 children in 70 early years centres.

However, the study is not representative of all children in the pre-school year as disadvantaged children and those attending community-based childcare were more strongly represented.

It found that almost one in five (18%) had special education needs and most of these were speech and language difficulties.

“These children showed less improvement compared to other children and foreshadows challenges when they enter primary school,” the study pointed out.

For a substantial minority of children in the study (15%) who were from non-English speaking backgrounds, the free pre-school year improved their social and emotional skills, but the gap in language and cognitive skills remained unchanged.

However, the study’s findings are consistent with Irish and international evidence on pre-school and school systems that a child’s family have a greater influence on outcomes. It also found that children from more advantaged backgrounds might also have stronger skills because they have spent time in an early years centre before the free pre-school year.

The report says it is necessary to think about a “two-generation” approach to support of children who experience adversity by strengthening the capabilities of their parents.

The report said all the evidence indicated that further investment and improvement was needed to create a more successful early years system in Ireland to improve outcomes for all while at the same time narrowing the gap between children.


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