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"Assessing the Evidence on Early Childhood Education": A Systematic Review of the Best Research Evidence

lunch-time at a Kita in GermanyA copy of the full review is available at the end of this article.



The methodologically soundest (best) research over the past 20 years on the effects of participation in early childhood education and care was selected and assessed.

Studies were selected using a set of strict criteria, including that they:

  • followed children from a young age (as opposed to sampling children when they have left or are due to leave to go to school), and
  • were not reports of high cost intervention overseas programmes for different ethnic groups impossible to duplicate here in NZ for the same outcomes.

As the review was a systematic and critical one, and independently conducted, it did not suffer from biases often inherent in literature reviews and publicly funded reviews.  

The findings of this critical and systematic review may be controversial because the findings differ from political claims about what research says. 

This paper presents the major pieces of research and the strongest evidence available on what the positive and negatives effects of childcare are, and discusses the evidence in the light of current policy directions in New Zealand.


Key Findings

1.  The most robust research points to parents/family having greater impact than the childcare/ECE experience on children’s developmental outcomes. This is no surprise and confirms what early childhood professionals generally know and acknowledge. Therefore, effort put towards supporting families to provide great home learning environments for children and allowing parents to make child-rearing arrangements that are best for their child and for family well-being would pay off.

2.  Children attending full-time ECE/childcare as compared to part-time (around 12.5 hours per week or 2.5 hour sessions) do not have significantly better developmental outcomes. In other words it is the experience of attending a group early childhood programme that matters, and more time in the programme does not equal greater benefits for children

3.  The evidence also points to ECE/childcare having both developmental risks and benefits. There can be cognitive gains (at least in the short-term and dependent upon the effectiveness of the primary school children go on to) but there can also be negative outcomes for children’s health, mothers’ sensitivity in interaction with their children, problem behaviours and aggression in children.

4.  The combined effects of home factors, ECE factors, and primary school factors are important to consider. The British EEPE 3 – 11 project notes that attending a less academically effective primary school can wash out any benefits to be gained from attending a more effective or a higher quality preschool. Children who did not attend preschool or attended a lower quality preschool can “catch up”. Results from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort in the US similarly point out that the longer-term effects of preschool experience can depend on classroom experiences during at least the first years of school (Magnuson, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2007). Public policy should therefore also be concerned about transition to primary school and ensuring that any benefits children gain from attending child care/ECE continue to be supported by effective academic instruction.

5.  Children attending childcare/ECE programmes can experience worse health outcomes than those who do not. They are more likely to need antibiotics for preventable illnesses. The evidence also indicates that children who may be more at risk may be protected by breastfeeding and being in a familial setting, especially before 2.5 years. 

On the basis of the best evidence, it seems unwise for public policy to promote a view that more intensive participation in good-quality (non-parental) ECE is best for every child and to encourage parents to use ECE if this is not their first choice or the right choice.  The research evidence suggests it would be wise to look for ways to support parents, and recognise that the primary purpose of early childcare and education is to support parents and families and not to replace them. The potential benefits of attending an early childhood programme will not be as strong for children otherwise. 

Furthermore, policy that seeks to make early childhood centres more like schools, risks institutionalising children's learning and makes it more difficult for centres and home-based ECE services to support parents.

As parents and family have the greatest impact on child outcomes it seems essential that information such as that provided in this paper is given to parents and not kept from them. 


Download this paper for your personal reading or study

A copy of the full paper is available by clicking   here     


Discussion and comments 


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