New EPPI Centre review: Long-term economic impact of centre-based early childhood interventions
5 May 2006
Politicians and policy-makers should stop basing the case for expanding early years provision on old, inaccurate and decontextualized data about long-term economic benefits, a research study has concluded.
The figures usually quoted – that every dollar spent on early years interventions saves seven dollars later on – are derived from old American research that may not be relevant to modern-day conditions outside the US. And there is little point in trying to replicate such longitudinal studies in the UK say researchers.
Of the three American studies, the most famous - Perry High/Scope - dates back to the 1960s, while the other two date from the 1970s and 1980s. They were largely confined to poor African-American families living very deprived inner city areas.
‘Although there seems to be a general indication from these three studies that centre based early childhood interventions may make a long-term difference to children from these groups and thus save some money, the processes involved are relatively unclear’, says the research team.
‘On the basis of this review, the widespread international use of the most favourable headline findings, and in particular of the Perry High/Scope study, is unjustified. Apart from the variation within and between studies, and problems of interpretation of the results, especially crime figures, there is also a problem about the context in which these studies were carried out.
‘The targeting of low-income African-American children in ghettoized neighbourhoods, in a period of considerable racial tension, leads to considerable doubts about the generalisability of these interventions outside their original context.’
The research team, led by Helen Penn, Professor of Early Childhood at the University of East London, does not recommend carrying out similar studies in the UK today because early childhood services are changing too fast, and interventions based on targeted groups, such as black children, could be considered discriminatory.
Instead, researchers should explore and evaluate different models of providing and costing services and concentrate on the neglected area of measuring their effect on children’s wellbeing in the short term.
The Government-funded research review focused on studies in English since 1950 which explore the long-term economic impact of various kinds of centre-based pre-school intervention: ‘Long-term’ was taken as more than 10 years from the date of the intervention. ‘Economic impact’ included rates of incarceration, teenage pregnancy rates, employment and earnings.
After searching nearly 5,000 reports, they found only the three American studies met their criteria, although they were written up in 58 separate reports.
The Perry High/Scope study, started in the 1960s, was a small, single-site study, where children were given part-time nursery education and their parents were given support through home visits.
The Abecedarian study, also small but started in the 1970s, drew on an especially high-risk population. The programme offered full-time provision for children aged 0 to 5.
The third and much larger study – the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) – was an evaluation starting the in the 1980s of a cohort attending a programme started in the 1960s. This offered part-time nursery education to 3- and 4-year-olds and required parents to attend the centres.