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By Jennifer Craw

Just how important is pre-primary education?  The most recent PISA results show a positive link between pre-primary education and student academic performance.  OECD defines pre-primary education as the “initial stage of organized instruction, designed primarily to introduce very young children to a school-type environment, that is, to provide a bridge between home and a school-based atmosphere” and specifies that such programs “be designed to meet the educational and developmental needs of children at least three years of age, and have staff that are adequately trained (i.e., qualified) to provide an educational program for the children.”  According to the OECD, “PISA consistently finds that 15-year-old students who had attended pre-primary education tend to perform better than those who had not attended pre-primary education, even after accounting for the students’ socioeconomic status.”  In 2012, the difference in PISA mathematics scores between students who had attended pre-primary education and those who had not was 51 points—the equivalent of more than a year of formal schooling.  This difference is even apparent in countries that perform uniformly well on PISA.  The chart below shows the difference in mathematics performance on PISA between students who have and who have not attended pre-primary education, with top performing countries and the United States highlighted in darker blue.

PISA Math Scores and Early Education Participation

Source: OECD PISA 2012 Volume II

Knowing the impact of pre-primary education on student performance, what does overall participation in pre-primary education look like in the top performing countries?  The chart below shows the percent of four-year-olds enrolled in education in each country.  It is important to note here that in some countries, Finland in particular, social programs such as longer paid-maternity leave allow a greater proportion mothers to stay at home with young children, which would decrease the number of children in daycare centers which are included as pre-primary education programs.

Percent of Four Year Olds Enrolled in Pre-primary education

Source: OECD Education At a Glance 2013

Participation in pre-primary education has been steadily increasing over the past several years in almost all countries.  The next chart displays how participation in pre-primary has increased since 2005 for those top performing countries for which such data is available.

Change in Early Education Enrollment 2005-2011

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013

The data also show a strong link between pre-primary education attendance and more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.  In other words, children from more wealthy homes are more likely to attend pre-primary education, and those students who might benefit most – the socioeconomically disadvantaged – are less likely to attend.  The following chart shows the difference in socioeconomic status between students who have and have not attended pre-primary education.  OECD PISA calculates students’ socioeconomic status along a numeric scale.  The bars in the chart below represent how many points along that scale separate students who have participated in pre-primary education from those who have not.  The higher the bar in the chart, the higher the socioeconomic status for those students who have participated in pre-primary programs compared to those who have not.  Again, top performing countries and the United States are highlighted in darker blue.

Socio-economic status and enrollment in pre-primary education

Source: OECD PISA 2012 Volume II

According to this analysis, in almost all cases, students with higher socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to have attended pre-primary education.  The only exception is in Japan, where socioeconomic status of those who have attended pre-primary programs is nearly the same as those who have not.  In Japan, there is also a high rate of women from upper income levels who opt to stay home with their young children rather than rejoin the workforce.  Prime Minister Abe has noted this trend, and hopes the creation of more preschool places will induce more working mothers to rejoin the workforce sooner.

The OECD reported in Education at a Glance 2011, that an increased focus on early childhood education has resulted in the extension of compulsory education to lower ages, more free early childhood education, and the creation of programs that integrate care with formal pre-primary education.  This is evidenced in several recent reforms in top performing countries.  In Poland new funding for early childhood education has led to nearly doubled enrollment rates for three- and four-year-olds since 2004.  While in Taiwan, a new fee-waiver system for those who cannot afford pre-primary school tuition has recently been made available, and the Ministry hopes to extend that system to include three- and four-year-olds soon.  Taiwan has also drafted legislation to integrate day-care centers with kindergartens to create a more cohesive system.  In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to create 400,000 new daycare spaces nationwide by 2018.  And a recent government panel on education reform in Japan has recommended offering free education for children as young as three years old and lowering the age at which all children must start school from six years old to five.  Given the link between early childhood education participation and later academic success, reforms that focus on funding and access for all students – especially those most at-risk – are investments that pay off not only in the early years, but throughout a young person’s academic career.