Executive Summary

Early learning better predicts later educational success than any other factor, especially for disadvantaged children

The initial five years of a child’s life is one of great opportunity and of great risk. Children’s learning happens at a faster rate in early childhood than at any other time of life. Children who have poor early development experience enduring impacts on their later:

  • academic achievements

  • employment and earnings

  • health outcomes

  • civic engagement

  • parenting skills.

Growing up in a low socio-economic status (SES) household is the largest risk factor linked to children’s early learning. Five-year-old children from low SES families are, on average, 12 months behind high SES children in their cognitive development. The gap is even larger in children’s social-emotional development. In addition, children from low SES households are more likely to experience other risk factors, such as low birth weight and having a home language that is different from their early childhood education and care (ECEC) centre or school. These risks compound the level of disadvantage that low SES children experience, making a ‘level playing field’ a more challenging aspiration.

Some children from disadvantaged1 households do achieve strong learning outcomes, including at similar levels to children from high SES households. These resilient children represent a minority of disadvantaged children. Nonetheless, they demonstrate that equitable outcomes are possible and they show education leaders and policy makers the factors that make early equity possible.

Achieving a level playing field for disadvantaged children requires action

Delays in learning become more entrenched as children progress through primary school. Thus, avoiding or at least reducing equity gaps in the early years is more effective and less costly than attempting to do so later in schooling.

Early equity is a lever that can transform overall equity within education systems, Achieving early equity, however, requires deliberate, at-scale action, before children arrive at school. Education leaders and policy makers can improve early equity through:

  • Providing children with access to early childhood education and care (ECEC)

  • Taking measures to ensure ECEC is of high quality

  • Supporting strong links between ECEC teachers and parents

  • Improving the quality of children’s home learning environments.

Using all of these measures shifts disadvantaged five-year-olds from being 12 months of development behind their more advantaged peers to being on an equal footing, with every chance of educational success in front of them.


Action on early equity requires a focus on children’s learning trajectories. In some education systems, this will mean acting beyond traditional institutional arrangements such as schools. The role of families, for example, is a critical but often untapped resource for improving early equity.

And data on child outcomes is essential for monitoring progress

Effective efforts to improve early equity are informed by reliable data. This is the only means to assess whether children’s experiences and outcomes are improved.


← 1. Disadvantaged refers to families in the bottom quartile of socio-economic status (SES) whereas advantaged children are from families in the top SES quartile. SES is based on parents’ education levels and occupations, and household income.


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