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This chapter examines the extent to which disadvantaged children are able to access high quality early childhood education and care in the US. It describes the split in responsibilities between federal and state (and local) governments, and underlines the key role played by the private sector, including for-profit providers. Significant disparities in enrolment are evident, with low income children and children of immigrants less likely than their peers to be enrolled, and less likely to be in formal school or centre based care. Low income children also attend care of lower average quality than that attended by higher income children. The authors discuss current policy initiatives to reduce disparities including efforts to expand and improve the federal Head Start program for low income children, federal and state quality improvement efforts, and state and local expansions of prekindergarten programs serving three and four year olds.

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Providing quality early education and care for disadvantaged children

Early education and care has become a central policy area in many countries. As services expand rapidly, it is crucial to examine whether children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive provision of the highest possible quality.

In this original, topical book, leading experts from eight countries examine how early education and care is organised, funded and regulated in their countries. Bringing together recent statistical evidence, the book gives an up-to-date picture of access to services by different groups, providing rich insights on how policies play out in practice, and the extent to which they help or hinder disadvantaged children to receive high quality provision.

An equal start? reveals the common tensions and complexities countries face in ensuring that early education and care is affordable, accessible and of high quality. Its critical examination of the potential for better policies ensures that An equal start? will be of interest to academic readers as well as policy makers and practitioners.

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A growing literature connects childhood socio-emotional skills to adult socio-economic outcomes. But what explains differing levels of socio-emotional skills? Current theories consider parental investment and socialisation, but neglect the emotional and relational aspects of parenting. Attachment theory offers a model of the micro-level mechanisms that connect parenting processes and socio-emotional development intergenerationally. It has, however, tended to de-emphasise macro, contextual socio-economic factors. Through an extensive, integrative review of the empirical literature on the effects and antecedents of parent–child attachment, we argue that attachment is a mechanism through which socio-emotional – and socio-economic – (dis)advantages persist.

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As prior chapters of this volume have documented, there has been a raft of new initiatives in UK labour market and welfare policies (see Chapters Two, Three and Seven in this volume), many of which will have had a particular bearing on mothers’ labour market status and child poverty. These include the National Minimum Wage (NMW), Child and Working Families Tax Credits, National Childcare Strategy, improved maternity and family leave provision and New Deals for Lone Parents and Partners of the Unemployed. There have also been benefit increases for families with children (through increases in Child Benefit and Income Support).

The rapid pace of reform means that there have been sharp increases in household income among poor families with children, whose incomes have risen somewhat faster than incomes on average. As a result, the number of children in relative poverty has started to fall. This change is particularly dramatic given the trends prior to 1997.

Over the 20 years prior to 1997, children replaced pensioners as the group with the highest incidence of relative income poverty in UK society. While average incomes of the elderly rose in real terms and this held even among the poorest fifth, the poorest fifth of children in 1996/97 were in households with real incomes no different in absolute terms from those reported for the corresponding group in 1979 (Gregg et al, 1999b; Dickens and Ellwood, 2003; Chapter Seven of this volume). A number of studies, such as Breadline Britain, highlighted the material deprivation experienced by Britain’s poor (see, most recently, Gordon et al, 2000, which documents the extent of poverty and social exclusion in Britain in 1999).

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This is the introductory chapter to a comparative volume examining how successfully, and through what mechanisms, policies in eight different countries ensure access to high quality early education and care for disadvantaged children. The chapter begins by examining the research evidence on the impact of early education and care for children’s outcomes, including a discussion of the importance of the quality of provision. It then explains the purpose and scope of the volume and sets out the rationale for choosing the eight countries and considers some broad similarities and differences between them, drawing on international data. Finally, it provides a brief overview of each of the country chapters, highlighting the key policy issues that arise in each one.

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This chapter examines the extent to which disadvantaged children are able to access high quality early childhood education and care in the UK, highlighting both developments over the past 15 years and remaining challenges. Using new data, it examines the social gradient in access to high quality provision within the free entitlement for three and four year olds, finding that children in more deprived areas are much more likely than children from better off areas to attend maintained settings, where staff include qualified teachers. However, outside the entitlement concerns remain about both access and quality. The authors explore the policy mechanisms in operation and offer suggestions for improvements, including expanding maintained nursery classes to deliver the entitlement (including for two year olds), raising and equalizing qualification levels across all settings, and extending supply side subsidies to cover younger children, to make care more affordable for parents.

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This chapter draw together the evidence from our eight country case studies to examine how different countries have best addressed the common challenge of the “childcare triangle” – ensuring that early childhood education and care is accessible and affordable to all children, whatever their background, and that is also high quality. It identifies common themes and highlights insights from good practice which might be useful in thinking about the way ECEC is organised, funded and delivered with the goal of equitable access in mind. It seeks not to focus too heavily on contemporary policy debates in any one country but to draw out broader lessons that will stand the test of time.

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This study exploits data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a birth cohort study of a diverse sample of children from 20 cities in the United States (N = 3,676), to examine how cognitive, behavioural and health outcomes of five-year-old children differ according to their family structure and family stability. We define three models: one that measures family structure at birth only, a second that measures current family structure at year five conditional on family structure at birth, and a third that measures changes in family structure from birth to age five. We find that while family structure has persistent links to early child outcomes, the effects are significantly altered by stability of the family structure over time. These findings remain robust even after addressing selection.

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An increasing share of children in the US are living with lone mothers. In 1998, 23% of children under the age of 18 lived with a lone mother, up from 18% in 1980 and 8% in 1960 (see Table 3.1). Although there are differences in the extent of lone parenthood across racial and ethnic groups, the share of children living with lone mothers has risen in all groups: from 1980 to 1998, the share of children living with a lone mother rose from 14 to 18% for whites, from 44 to 51% for African-Americans, and from 20 to 27% for Hispanics (see Table 3.2)2. In the US, the term ‘single mother’ is typically used to describe women who have children and who are not currently married. It is important to note that a substantial number of these women may be cohabiting; this has not traditionally been tracked in US data. In this chapter, the authors use the terms ‘single mother’ and ‘lone mother’ interchangeably.

The share of children whose mothers have never been married has grown more rapidly (see Tables 3.1 and 3.2). In 1998, 9% of all children lived with never-married mothers, three times the 2.9% rate in 1980 and more than twenty times the 0.4% rate in 1960. Between 1980 and 1998, the share of children living with never-married mothers rose from 1 to 5% among whites, from 13 to 32% among African-Americans, and from 4 to 12% among Hispanics. By 1998, 39% of children living with lone mothers were living with never-married mothers.

Historically, lone mothers have had a higher labour force participation rate than married mothers (Burtless, 2000). However, their participation rate has varied by marital status (see Figure 3.1).

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