copy the linklink copied!Executive summary

What happens early in life lays the foundations for future development. A child’s development during the first few years of life predicts their future personal and academic success. The skills they develop during those first few years also form the foundation of general well-being, including how well they will cope with successes and setbacks as adults. Providing a strong start in children’s early years is an effective investment to enhance education and later life outcomes. Seeking to improve individual or systemic learning issues at later ages is often less successful and more costly than doing so earlier.

The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) puts a spotlight on how children are faring at age five. The study directly measures key indicators of children’s early learning and collects a broad range of development and contextual information from parents and educators. The study does not measure everything. Instead, it focuses on those aspects of development and learning that are predictive of children’s later education outcomes and wider well-being. These are: emergent literacy1 and numeracy, self-regulation,2 and social-emotional skills.3 Across these early learning domains, 10 dimensions of children’s development and learning were included in the study.

England (United Kingdom) participated in this study with two other OECD countries: Estonia and the United States. Each of these countries recognises children’s early years as critical to children’s later learning and well-being. Each country participated in this study to enhance the body of international evidence available to policy makers, education leaders and practitioners, and parents to improve children’s early learning outcomes. The information from the study provides each country with insights to inform their approaches to children’s early years and the first years of schooling.

Five-year-olds in England had stronger emergent numeracy skills than children in the other two countries participating in the study. Children in England had similar emergent literacy, mental flexibility and working memory skills to children in Estonia, which were higher than those of children in the United States. In addition, children in England were reported by educators as being less disruptive than children in Estonia, but as disruptive as children in the United States. Nonetheless, children in England were less able to identify others’ emotions than children in Estonia, but were similar to children in the United States.

Socio-economic status was strongly associated with children’s early learning outcomes in England. Five-year-olds from disadvantaged homes in England had lower levels of emergent literacy and numeracy, self-regulation and social-emotional skills than children from advantaged homes.4 The gap in learning outcomes between children in advantaged families and those in disadvantaged families was larger in England than in Estonia, but was not as large as in the United States.

Almost all children in England had participated in early childhood education and care before the age of five and most had done so from the age of three. Most children in Estonia had also participated in early childhood education, but this was not the case for children in the United States. In the United States, children who had attended early childhood education had significantly higher emergent literacy and numeracy scores than children who had not attended, across all socio-economic groups.

The activities that parents undertake with their children were significantly related to children’s early learning outcomes. For example, reading to children three to seven days a week was strongly associated with children’s emergent literacy. More parents5 in England read to their children five to seven days a week than in Estonia or the United States. The number of children’s books in a child’s home was another significant predictor of most cognitive and social-emotional outcomes. Children in England were more likely to have more children’s books in their homes than children in the other two countries.

The frequency with which a child used an electronic device was not significantly associated with their emergent numeracy outcomes in England but was related to their emergent literacy and working memory outcomes. Most five-year-olds in England (85 %) used an electronic device at least once a week and 39 % did so on a daily basis. The regular use of electronic devices was not associated with stronger or poorer skills across most measured outcomes. There were, however, positive correlations with children’s ability to recall short visual sequences (working memory) and their emergent literacy.

Emergent literacy and numeracy skills were strongly interrelated, and positively related to self-regulation and social-emotional development. Children with high levels of cognitive skills were more likely to have high levels of social-emotional skills and vice-versa. Children depend on a combination of skills to help them learn to express themselves, understand and interact well with others and increasingly understand the world in which they live.


← 1. Emergent literacy refers to the skills children develop that are a precursor to literacy. These are skills in understanding and communicating with others. In this study, there was no assessment of whether children could read or write.

← 2. Self-regulation refers to the skills children develop to inhibit their impulses and direct their thought processes, enabling them to concentrate, retain information and complete short tasks. These are often referred to as executive function.

← 3. Social-emotional skills refer to children’s abilities to interact well with others and to manage their emotions.

← 4. Children from an advantaged socio-economic background are those in the top quartile of socio-economic status. Children from a disadvantaged socio-economic background are those in the bottom quartile.

← 5. Results are representative of the population of parents who participated in the study.

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