Universal early years provision for all 0-4 year olds

In our 2016 policy manifesto we call for universal early years provision for all 0-4 year olds. Here are our top five reasons why.

 1  Better educational, health, social and economic outcomes

Investment in 0-4 year olds leads to better educational, health, social and economic outcomes for children and, in turn, for Northern Ireland as a whole.

Research by the World Bank stated: “children who participate in well-conceived ECD programs tend to be more successful in later school, are more competent socially and emotionally, and show higher verbal and intellectual development during early childhood than children who are not enrolled in high quality programs. Ensuring healthy child development, therefore, is an investment in a country's future workforce and capacity to thrive economically and as a society.”

 2  Early intervention saves the public purse

There is a compelling public finance case for focusing investment in early years as opposed to more costly interventions later in life. Research has consistently shown that the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible.

A 2011 UK Parliamentary Study – “Early Intervention, Smart Investment; Massive Savings” collated evidence related to early intervention finding: “early Intervention investment has the potential to make massive savings in public expenditure, reduce the costs of educational underachievement, drink and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, vandalism and criminality, court and police costs, academic underachievement, lack of aspiration to work and the bills from lifetimes wasted while claiming benefits.”

 3  All children benefit from pre-school education

In Northern Ireland early years provision has traditionally be focused on areas of deprivation, however we believe there is a strong case, for universality given the positive impact access to early years provision can have for all children in Northern Ireland.

A DENI longitudinal study into the effects of pre-school education and care on children’s development found that “attending pre-school enhances cognitive and social development in all children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit even more when they are with a mixture of children from different social backgrounds”

 4  Positive return on investment

The return on investment of early years investment can be difficult to quantify, not least because the economic benefits do not typically begin to emerge until 15 years after the intervention begins. However research has shown that this some return on investment can be recouped even before the child reaches five years of age.

A UK Department of Education National Evaluation of Surestart carried out in 2010 found that “by the age of five between six per cent and 12 per cent of the costs had already flowed back into benefits. These benefits derived from improved parental employment, which resulted in benefits to families and to taxpayers more generally.” The report continued that “the interventions available to children and families had the potential to lead to positive benefits in future years, but these will probably not become apparent until after 2020.”

 5  Tackling inequality

Children begin school aged 4/5 with varying degrees of ability in language, vocabulary and readiness to learn. This can be linked to advantage and disadvantage. One strength of universal early years provision is the ability to redress this imbalance.

The Nuffield Foundation found that, “by the age of three, children from poorer backgrounds could on average be as much as a year behind their more advantaged peers. The attainment gap widens by the time children enter school: at the beginning of their first year, children from the lowest-income families are already on average 16 months behind those from high-income families. These gaps increase steadily over time, can last a lifetime, and are apparent across a range of indicators, from health and wellbeing to income and attainment.”


These are just five of the reasons why in our manifesto, Untapping the Potential, we are making the case for universal early years provision for all 0 – 4 year olds in Northern Ireland.

We have costed this call, using current government spending on Sure Start as a basis, it is estimated that access to pre-school provision for all 0-4 year olds would cost an additional £36.9million per annum. You can read more details on how we reached this costing here.

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