copy the linklink copied!Chapter 3. A snapshot of participating countries

This chapter provides contextual information on the three participating countries: England (United Kingdom), Estonia and the United States. This information includes demographic characteristics and trends, income and inequalities, and systems to support children’s early learning and well-being. In addition, the chapter provides information on the relative performance of each country’s education system.


copy the linklink copied!Introduction

The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS) was implemented in three OECD countries: England (United Kingdom), Estonia and the United States, and the findings from this study are based on just under 7 000 five-year-olds in these three countries.

The participating countries in this study have a number of similarities, but there are also important differences between them. England, Estonia and the United States all have well-established education systems. Nonetheless, they differ in terms of scale, wealth, demographics, diversity and education performance at a system-level. There are also significant differences in each country’s early learning systems and the other support they provide to children and their families.

Recognising these differences helps to better understand the findings across countries, such as the extent to which each is able to mitigate disadvantage as well as the overall results for each country. The characteristics of each country provide the background and context for the study’s country-specific findings, as these affect the context in which the five-year-old children in this study are growing up, such as the families and communities in which they live.

This chapter outlines key differences between England1, Estonia and the United States from a system perspective. The factors considered include demographics, income levels, early years systems, education levels and education system performance.

copy the linklink copied!Demographics

The three countries are very different in scale

The United States has the largest population of any OECD country, estimated at just under 320 million people in 2014. This is more than five times the population of England, estimated at 56 million in 2018,2 and far greater than Estonia, which had an estimated population of just over 1 million in 2019. Estonia is one of the smallest countries in the OECD, as Figure 3.1 shows.

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Figure 3.1. Total population across OECD countries
Figure 3.1. Total population across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2020[1]), Population (indicator),


In 2017, there were 24 million children aged five and under in the United States, compared to 3 million children in that age group in England and 54 000 children in Estonia.

In 2017, fertility rates across the three countries were 1.59 for Estonia, 1.76 for England and 1.77 for the United States, compared to the OECD average of 1.70. These relative rates are reflected in the proportion of the population who are under the age of 15: 15.8% in Estonia, 17.8% in the United Kingdom and 19.2% in the United States. (OECD, 2020[1]).

In addition to fertility rates, factors such as migration and mortality rates also influence overall population levels and the size of the working-age population. In 2018, both the United Kingdom and the United States experienced population growth of 0.7%, whereas Estonia experienced negative growth of -0.2%. The proportion of the working-age population – defined as those aged 15 to 64 years – appears to be declining in Estonia (at 65.8% in 2014) and in the United Kingdom (64.9% in 2014), whereas it has been relatively stable in the United States (at 66.4%) (OECD, 2020[1]).

Skills levels are important for achieving positive economic and social outcomes in any country. However, skill levels become even more critical in economies where the working-age population is in decline and cannot be easily offset through increased inflows of highly skilled migrants.

The United States and England have more diverse populations than Estonia

The United States is more ethnically diverse than England and much more so than Estonia. In 2017, 51% of children in the United States were White, 25% were Hispanic, 14% were Black, 5% were Asian, and 0.8% were American Indian or Alaska Native (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2018[2]). England’s population is also diverse, although 75% of children are White, with significant populations of Asian (10%), Black (5%) and mixed race (5%) (Office for National Statistics, 2011). In contrast, Estonia is relatively homogenous, with the only key differences being between Estonian-speaking (70%) and Russian-speaking children (25%) (Statistics Estonia, 2019[3]).

Both the United States and England have significant migrant populations. Among the children included in this study, 18% of children in the United States and in England were from a migrant background, compared to 2% in Estonia.

The language that children and their families speak is a highly relevant factor in relation to diversity and education. Of those sampled for the study, 20% of children in the United States were recorded as having a home language other than English, compared to 16% in England; 6% of the children sampled in Estonia spoke a language other than Estonian or Russian.

Families are becoming increasingly diverse, especially in the United States and England

While most children in OECD countries (82%) still live in two-parent families, family composition has been changing. For example, informal cohabitation has increased from 10% to 16% in the last 10 years. Children are now more likely to experience different family settings during their childhood than previous generations, including living with step-parents and social parents (informal cohabitation);3 commuting between the homes of their two biological parents; and having half siblings, step-siblings and social siblings (OECD, 2019).

Family composition differs across countries, including the three countries in this study. The United States has a larger proportion of children living in single-parent households than England or Estonia, yet also has a larger proportion of children living with married parents (Figure 3.2).

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Figure 3.2. Distribution of 0-17 year-olds by family structure across OECD countries
Figure 3.2. Distribution of 0-17 year-olds by family structure across OECD countries

Notes: a) For Japan and Mexico, children aged 0-14; b) ‘Parents’ generally refers to both biological parents and step-, adoptive parents. ‘Living with two married parents’ refers to situations where a child lives in a household with two adults that are considered parents and these parents are married to each other or have a registered partnership. ‘Living with two cohabiting parents’ refers to situations where a child lives in a household with two adults who are considered parents and who are cohabiting without being married nor registered. ‘Living with a single parent’ refers to situations where a child lives in a household with only one adult who is considered a parent. ‘Other’ refers to a situation where the child lives without any parent; c) Data for Mexico refer to 2010, for Australia to 2012, for Japan to 2015, for Canada and Iceland to 2016, and for France, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Turkey, Slovak Republic, and Switzerland refer to 2017.

Source: (OECD, 2019[4]) Treating all children equally? Why policies should adapt to evolving family realities, Policy Brief on Child Well-being, OECD., Figure 1.


Children have greater access to digital technology

Another change in children’s lives is access to digital technology. In 2018, 20% of 15-year-olds who took the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that they had had access to the Internet before the age of six years, up 5 percentage points from 2012. As Table 3.1 shows, on average, 83% of children sampled for this study across the three participating countries used a digital device at least once a week, with 42% using such a device every day. Only 7% of children on average never or hardly ever used a device, with 10% of children using a device at least monthly, but not weekly. The use of digital devices was more prevalent in the United States and least prevalent in Estonia.

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Table 3.1. Use of digital devices among five-year-olds by country


Every day

At least weekly but not daily

At least monthly but not weekly

Rarely or never











United States





Overall mean





copy the linklink copied!Income

The United States has significantly higher income than the other two countries

The United States has one of the highest gross domestic product (GDP)4 per capita in the OECD (Figure 3.3). Per capita GDP in the United Kingdom is close to the OECD average, while Estonia’s is below the OECD average. The resources of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom therefore exceed Estonia’s, influencing the resources available, on average, to individual households and the potential resources available for early years education.

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Figure 3.3. GDP per capita across OECD countries
Figure 3.3. GDP per capita across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2019[5]) OECD.Stat Level of GDP per capita and productivity,


Estonia has greater income equality

While Estonia has lower per capita GDP than England or the United States, it does not experience the same disparity in wealth or poverty as England or the United States. Figure 3.4 shows the Gini coefficient across OECD countries, where 0 equates to perfect income equality and 1 to perfect inequality.

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Figure 3.4. Gini coefficient across OECD countries
Figure 3.4. Gini coefficient across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2019[6]), Income inequality (indicator).


Estonia also has lower rates of child poverty

Child poverty5 rates in Estonia are less than half the rates in the United States and a little lower than in the United Kingdom (OECD, 2019[7]). One-fifth of children aged under 18 live in poverty in the United States (21%), compared to 12% in the United Kingdom and 10% in Estonia (Figure 3.5). In the United States, 36% of American Indian/Alaska Native children, 34% of Black children, and 26% of Hispanic children live in poverty, a much larger share than among White children (12%). In England, Black children and children from ethnic minority families are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as children from White families (Department of Work and Pensions, UK Government, 2019[8]).

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Figure 3.5. Poverty rates among 0-17 year-olds across OECD countries
Figure 3.5. Poverty rates among 0-17 year-olds across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2019[7]) Poverty rate (indicator).


copy the linklink copied!Early years systems

Parents enjoy greater support in England and Estonia than in the United States

England provides paid parental leave of 39 weeks, more than the OECD average of 18 weeks, while Estonia provides 87 weeks of paid parental leave. Total parental leave entitlement in England is 52 weeks compared with 3 years in Estonia. In contrast, the United States is unique among OECD countries in having no statutory entitlement to paid maternity, paternity or parental leave. Large employers in the United States are required to provide 12 weeks unpaid leave and some states and some employers opt to provide longer paid and/or unpaid parental leave for employees.

Parental support helps new parents to care for their children and provide them with a positive early start. The World Health Organization recommends infants should be breastfed for the first 6 months for optimal health, growth and development, including for early cognitive development. In Estonia, 72% of babies are still breastfed at 6 months, compared to 58% in the United States and 36% in England (UNICEF, 2019[9]).

Infant mortality rates are another indicator of how well families and infants are faring. Infant mortality rates are significantly lower in Estonia than in the United Kingdom or the United States (Figure 3.6).

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Figure 3.6. Infant mortality rates across OECD countries
Figure 3.6. Infant mortality rates across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2019[10]) Infant mortality rates (indicator).


England and Estonia have integrated early learning systems

Both England and Estonia have relatively comprehensive early childhood education and care (ECEC) systems in place. Each achieves high take-up rates across socio-economic groups, and are focused on children’s holistic development. Both countries operate integrated ECEC systems, where responsibility for ECEC policies largely lies with the education department or ministry, rather than being divided amongst two or more agencies.

The United States, however, operates under a split system. Responsibility for ECEC lies with the Department for Health and Human Services while responsibility for schooling lies with the Department of Education. While responsibility for children’s early years in the United States is devolved to state and regional levels, the federal government nonetheless provides grants to states for ECEC provision and funds programmes targeting at-risk children, such as Head Start. However, there is no overall national policy or requirements on states regarding provision, quality or affordability, leading to wide variability in access and affordability across and within states.

Between 2005 and 2017, across OECD countries, the average enrolment of 3-5 year-olds in education rose from 76% to 86% (OECD, 2019). The most significant recent growth in ECEC participation has been among children under three. Increases in ECEC participation over recent decades are strongly correlated to increases in women’s labour market participation.

ECEC participation rates are higher in the United Kingdom and Estonia than in the United States. In 2017, 100% of three-year-olds in the United Kingdom participated in ECEC, compared to 91% in Estonia, 42% in the United States and 79% on average across OECD countries (OECD, 2019). The United Kingdom also achieves universal participation among four-year-olds, while Estonia’s rate is 92% and the United States 66%. The OECD average participation rate for four-year-olds is 88%.

OECD countries have used a range of policy levers to increase ECEC participation rates. These include the provision of free ECEC; targeted provision and subsidies for some population groups, usually disadvantaged children; and the extension of compulsory education to younger age levels. A recent example in the United Kingdom has been the targeted support for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families that was put in place in 2013, achieving relatively high take-up rates among the target group (Department for Education, 2019). Some of the children sampled for IELS will have been beneficiaries of this targeted support.

copy the linklink copied!Education system performance

Estonia’s education system performs at the highest level, but all three are strong performers

Estonia is one of the best-performing countries in PISA. Estonia was the highest-performing OECD country in reading and science in PISA 2018, and was third in mathematics after Japan and Korea. Estonia has reached this position through steady improvements over successive PISA cycles.

The United Kingdom sits above the OECD mean for these three key competency areas. In PISA 2018, the United Kingdom had increased in the proportion of top performers for reading, among both girls and boys, as part of its gradual improvement over time.

In PISA 2018, the United States performed at a similar level to the United Kingdom for reading and science, but at a significantly lower level in mathematics, below the OECD mean. The United States has remained at similar levels of performance since it participated in the first PISA assessment in 2000.

As with most countries that achieve at the highest level, Estonia also achieves high equity amongst students from different socio-economic groups, as shown in Figure 3.7. Disadvantaged students in the United Kingdom achieved higher scores in 2018 than in previous cycles, whereas the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students has remained constant in the United States.

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Figure 3.7. Strength of the socio-economic gradient and reading performance
Figure 3.7. Strength of the socio-economic gradient and reading performance

Source: (OECD, 2018[11]), PISA 2018 Database, Table 11.B1.2.3,


Estonian mothers are more highly educated than mothers in the United States or England

Mothers’ education levels correlate positively with children’s early learning outcomes in many studies on children’s early years (Shuey et al., 2018). While parents’ education is often included in measures of socio-economic status, parental education tends to be more strongly associated with children’s early outcomes than household income (Sylva et al, 2008[14]). Parents’ education levels are also correlated to the activities parents do with their children, such as reading from books and talking with them. The latter are both key facets of children’s home learning environments. Parental education also influences decisions about children’s participation in ECEC (Shuey and Kankaraš 2018[15]).

Women in all three participating countries are more highly educated than men, although the gender gap is wider in Estonia than in the United Kingdom or the United States. The proportion of 25-34 year-old women with tertiary education6 is very similar in all three countries, at 54%, sitting above the OECD mean of 51% (Figure 3.8).

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Figure 3.8. Proportion of men and women with tertiary education across OECD countries
Figure 3.8. Proportion of men and women with tertiary education across OECD countries

Source: (OECD, 2019[12]), Population with tertiary education (indicator)., (accessed on 20 October 2019).


In the IELS sample, 53% of the mothers in Estonia had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 40% in England and 39% in the United States.7

copy the linklink copied!Conclusions

The three countries in this study each have distinct contexts and systems for supporting children and their families in the early years. Estonia and the United States differ immensely in size, wealth, equity, family and child policies and, to a lesser extent, education performance. England often occupies the middle ground being closer to Estonia on child and family policies and closer to the United States on demographic diversity. Nonetheless, each of the three countries has relatively well-developed education systems, equipping their students and young people with the skills they need.

Each new cohort of parents and children, however, can differ from previous cohorts. The lives of families and of young children can alter in response to changes such as family structures, gender roles, employment patterns, income and education levels, and housing and neighbourhood factors. These all affect the nature and extent of parental interactions with their children, and children’s engagement in learning at and outside of school. As a result, learning and education outcomes at a country level can and do change over time.

By paying attention to children’s early learning, countries can make immense improvements to the outcomes for individual children and their families, as well as using an effective and cost-efficient means to lift the performance of their education systems overall. To achieve such improvements, countries need reliable, valid and comparable data. This enables countries to see what is possible in children’s early learning, monitor progress at a system-level over time and take action to improve children’s outcomes.

The next three chapters set out the findings from this study on children’s early learning and development. These chapters cover the findings in each of the three early learning domains covered by the study: social-emotional skills, self-regulation and cognitive skills. The findings highlight the early learning of different groups of children as well as the factors that are associated with positive early learning.


[8] Department of Work and Pensions, UK Government (2019), Table 4.5db: Percentage of cHouseholds below average income: 1994/95 to 2017/18, UK Government, (accessed on October 15 2019).

[2] Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2018), America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2018, Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, (accessed on 14 February 2019).

[1] OECD (2020), Population (indicator), (accessed on 2020 February 2020).

[13] OECD (2019), Education at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] OECD (2019), Income inequality (indicator), (accessed on 15 October 2019).

[10] OECD (2019), Infant mortality rates (indicator), (accessed on 26 October 2019).

[5] OECD (2019), Level of GDP per capita and productivity, (accessed on 20 October 2019).

[7] OECD (2019), Poverty rate (indicator), (accessed on 10 October 2019).

[12] OECD (2019), Tertiary graduation rate (indicator), (accessed on 20 October 2019).

[4] OECD (2019), Treating all children equally? Why policies should adapt to evolving family realities, (accessed on 15 October 2019).

[11] OECD (2018), PISA 2018 Database, Table 11.B1.2.3

[15] Shuey, E. and M. Kankaraš (2018), “The Power and Promise of Early Learning”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 186, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[3] Statistics Estonia (2019), Statistical Database, Statistics Estonia website, (accessed on 10 April 2019).

[14] Sylva, K. et al. (2008),Final report from the primary phase: Pre-school, school and family influences on children’ s development during Key Stage 2 (7-11) Publication Details, (accessed on 4 February 2020).

[9] UNICEF (2018), Breastfeeding a Mother’s Gift for Every Child,


← 1. In some cases, data for the United Kingdom is used rather than for England, where information on England has not been accessible.

← 2. Note that England represents 84% of the total population of the United Kingdom (Office for National Statistics, 2019).

← 3. The term “social parent” refers to an adult who is living in an informal arrangement with a child’s parent. Social siblings refer to the children of a child’s social parent.

← 4. GDP per capita is a measure of a country’s economic output that accounts for its number of people. It divides the country’s gross domestic product by its total population, providing an indicator of a country’s standard of living.

← 5. The child relative income poverty rate is defined as the percentage of children (0-17 years) with an equivalised household disposable income (i.e. an income after taxes and transfers adjusted for household size) below the poverty threshold. The poverty threshold is 50% of the median disposable income in each country.

← 6. Tertiary education is defined as Level 5 and above on the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), i.e. generally at bachelor’s degree level and above.

← 7. Insufficient responses were received on fathers’ educational qualifications to report these.

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