Early childhood experts in England are grappling with a mystery. In the capital, London, fewer deprived preschool children attend nursery than elsewhere in England, they are less likely to attend a good or outstanding nursery, and yet by five years old they have better educational outcomes than their non-London peers which continue through school.
This data contradicts countless studies around the world — including one commissioned by the UK’s Department for Education — which have pointed to the same conclusion: early childhood education improves childhood outcomes. Better access to early learning, and better standards of that education, are supposed to boost a child’s chances.
Researchers are calling it “the London Paradox.” Martin Lennon, a policy analyst at the office of England’s Children’s Commissioner, said it “goes against all international evidence of child development.”
So why, then, are disadvantaged children in London outperforming their peers in the rest of the country? And what does this mean for puzzled policymakers?
The London paradox first came to light thanks to research by the UK’s Social Mobility Commission, which compared results from children’s early years assessments with their nursery attendance and quality. Disadvantaged preschoolers in London use early education far less than their peers elsewhere, more than 10% below the national average, while the nurseries they go to also have worse inspection results than elsewhere in England.
However, at five years old, London’s deprived children boast by far the highest scores in communication, physical and social development, according to assessments called the early learning goals (ELGs). For example, a child who qualifies for free school meals (FSM) in London is 30% more likely to meet the expected development standards when starting school compared to similar kids in the northern English areas of Leeds, Greater Manchester or Merseyside.
What’s more, the paradox has only developed since 2010. Before this, there was no significant difference between the development of children starting school in London and northern regions.
What’s causing it?
While there are no definitive explanations for this conundrum yet, a number of potential factors have been put forward which may help to explain it.
Anna Round, a Senior Research Fellow at the think tank IPPR North, suggests that deprived kids in London may gain from greater access to experiences such as museums and parks. It’s well established that more interactive learning is important for cognitive development in early childhood.
But while the breadth and depth of activities available do set London apart, parents still need the money and time to make the most of these experiences, and it’s unclear how they alone would account for such a large gap in outcomes for the most deprived children.
Ethnic diversity in London may also help to explain the mystery. Only 52% of white FSM pupils meet the expected development standards at five years old, compared to 59% of Asian FSM pupils and 63% of Black FSM pupils. So since London has many more non-white kids than much of the UK, might that be responsible for the gap?
The problem with that explanation is that the London paradox in early years education has only developed since 2010, but no radical change has happened since then in London’s ethnic makeup. Also, other areas of the UK such as Birmingham have similar diversity but lag behind in early years outcomes.
Meanwhile, Lennon said that London is quicker at identifying special educational needs (SEN) problems in young children. For example, by the age of five around 30% more children in London had SEN support compared to cities elsewhere in the country.
“When we speak to practitioners, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists etc, their constant criticism is that they see kids too late” Lennon explained. If a child has an issue with speech, they need intensive help at a young age, otherwise it could hamper their development for the intervening years before help is provided. If London is reaching such children earlier than other regions, that might explain later developmental differences.
But Lennon believes this can only account for “a small part of the overall London paradox”, as it’s more significant for children with severe special needs issues, and not deprived kids in general.
Understanding the home
If preschools are of a better quality outside London, but the capital’s under-fives are learning more quickly, then something must be happening outside formal education.
“Our viewpoint is it really begins with the home learning environment,” said Alasdair Flint, Project Manager of the National Literacy Trust, which works around the country with schools and communities to help disadvantaged children. “What’s present there, or indeed absent, is absolutely crucial in setting a child up for school.”
This view is backed up by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who used evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study to link several important factors to preschool achievement, such as the nature of family interactions, whether parents read regularly to the child, and how they set routines.
“We know from developmental psychology the specific types of parenting that help promote a child’s development,” said Lennon. “We have to speculate that in these London homes, this is happening, but we don’t actually have the proof”.
Finding that proof means understanding how young children engage with their parents, formal and informal childcare settings, and with the community more widely. The London paradox has exposed just how much more there is to find out.
The next steps
Policymakers in the UK are working to improve the learning environment outside formal education. The National Literacy Trust, for example, works around the Midlands and North to promote reading and writing in the home, by providing resources and advice to parents.
Importantly, they tailor the interventions to different communities in order to promote behavioural change. “In Middlesbrough, we’ve just started doing some work with the Roma community,” said Flint. “We’re working with two teaching assistants who themselves speak Roma and know the community.”
And in order to fully understand children’s early learning environments in England, policymakers need to gather more data. The emergence of the London paradox has raised some particularly difficult questions about the impact of formal preschool education. Without understanding what kind of support boosts children’s outcomes before they reach school, it’s difficult to know where to focus resources. “At the moment we don’t really have a good explanation of the London paradox, do we?” said Lennon.
“It causes a real problem for organisations like us, that have advocated for extra investment in the early years,” he said. “It’s quite a big challenge to policymakers.”
A Better Start, for example, a 10-year early childhood program set up by the Big Lottery Fund, is aiming to “test and learn” through interventions in five local areas such as personalised midwifery services and book donation. In the northern city of Bradford, Better Start aims to test the impact of 22 interventions by tracking the progress of around 5000 babies.
As the London paradox demonstrates, formal education alone doesn’t explain whether kids are ready for school. More studies like Better Start Bradford should help to complete the picture. If England is to close its preschool achievement gap, policymakers need to know what’s driving it.
(Picture credit: Allison Shelley)