Universal childcare in Germany disproportionally boosts the education level of immigrant and poorer children before they reach school. Unfortunately, though, they’re also far less likely to access it than better-off kids — who need it least.
These are the findings from a new UCL study, which could have significant implications for governments’ universal childcare policies.
The results show that, if only it were truly universal, Germany’s three years of publicly subsidised childcare could eradicate the achievement gap between immigrant kids and their advantaged native peers. So what can policymakers do to ensure it’s doing the most good?
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A piece of the puzzle
We know that targeted childcare and early education, such as the Perry Preschool Program in the US, can improve kids’ readiness for school. But there is very little evidence on how effective preschool policies are on a broader scale.
Germany’s expansion of childcare in the 1990s provided the perfect laboratory for UCL’s analysis. Every child became entitled to a heavily subsidised half-day childcare placement from three years old up to school age. They sat compulsory entrance exams when reaching school age, which provided the data for the research team, who compared different children’s readiness for school between 1994 and 2002.
Fortunately for the researchers, the expansion of childcare was staggered across municipalities and groups, said Christian Dustmann, a co-author of the study. They could therefore exploit these differences to see what was causing the results.
They found that immigrant kids, mainly from the former Soviet Union or Turkey, saw their results improve the most from attending public childcare. The same support, meanwhile, made no difference to advantaged German-born kids.
However, immigrant children were 20 percentage points less likely to attend early childcare than the majority population. As a result, policymakers need to focus on encouraging these particular “target groups” — which also includes the most disadvantaged native-born kids — to take up childcare places, said Dustmann.
There are a number of different reasons why immigrant and disadvantaged families may be resistant.
Tying access to the mother’s employment status could end up excluding groups who need it most
For example, even heavily subsidised fees may still seem relatively large to these groups than to better-off Germans. Female workforce participation may be lower in immigrant communities, meaning access to childcare is less of a priority.
Meanwhile, immigrants may be less aware of the benefits of preschool programs, and even critical of it — which can often be “culturally-rooted”, Dustmann said. Beliefs about child-rearing can differ, for example.
Lessons for England
The study could have important implications for other countries.
England’s new 30 hours policy, for example, offers free childcare to preschool children of working parents. While encouraging high female workforce participation, which should help to promote gender equality, tying access to the mother’s employment status could end up excluding groups who need it most, say the study’s authors.
If governments around the world want the greatest possible impact from universal childcare, they may need to be smarter about how it is implemented. Otherwise, they could be missing a golden opportunity to close the achievement gap in education.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Jason Austin)