Early childhood education and young adult competencies at age 16

Publication Details

Technical report 2 from the age 16 phase of the longitudinal Competent Children, Competent Learners study. This report covers any impact still discernible at age 16, and provides the technical details of the analysis. The main findings of this analysis are included in the companion summary report.

Author(s): Edith Hodgen, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: August 2007

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The role of early childhood education (ECE) in children's lives is a key focus for the Competent Children, Competent Learners study. When the study started, in 1992, the interest was on the effect on children while they were still in their last months of ECE. Since then, the interest has been on the long-term impact, if any, on the cognitive and attitudinal competencies measured.

The Competent Children, Competent Learners Study

Data collection for the first phase of this study took place over 1993–1994 in the wider Wellington region, usually within the last three months of a child's final ECE experience.1 We collected full information on 307 children who were then attending kindergarten, education and care centres, playcentre, family day care, and aoga amata (Samoan language nests). This sample of 307 is referred to in this report as the "original sample". The information collected included ratings of centre quality taken from observations over a three-hour period, on at least three different days, usually a fortnight apart; observations of the study children (five times on each occasion when the centre rating was done); and information on structural aspects from interviews with centre staff. Parents gave us information on their child's ECE history, and their experiences with their child's first and last ECE service.

We also collected some information on an additional 767 children of the same age, which included the length of their early childhood education experience, and information on their current ECE centre, but not on the centre's quality. When the children were aged 8, we included 242 children from this additional data collection into the main sample that we have continued to follow at two-yearly intervals. The 549 children in the study at age 8, or those of them remaining in the study in later years, are referred to in this report as the "full sample". At age 16 we have a total of 448 participants still in the study.Descriptions of the structural and process quality features of the ECE centres in our study, and observations of children's experiences in the centres, with some analysis of the relations between the structural and process quality aspects, and between children's observed experiences and competency levels can be found in Wylie, Thompson, and Kerslake Hendricks (1996).

Previous Findings

The study participants' early childhood education experience was still contributing to their mathematics and reading comprehension scores at age 12.2 At age 143, we found that aspects of the final early childhood education centre quality appear to have made some additional contribution to age-14 mathematics, reading comprehension, and attitudinal scores, after taking into account performance at the time of attending the final ECE centre, and family income or maternal qualifications. The difference between those with the most of a given aspect and others is a reasonable size, of around 9 percentage points on a scale of 100, warranting attention in policy and practice.

This contribution is generally not reduced much after taking age-5 performance into account, suggesting that ECE contributions to children's performance are not limited to the time they are attending. However, for many ECE quality measures the effect size was reduced somewhat after taking the social characteristics of the children into account: these generally have a more powerful effect than ECE experiences, partially because they are continuing elements in a child's life as they move through school.

The home environment and ECE environment both have long-term effects on learning outcomes. Some home and ECE variables were associated; for example, ECE centre socioeconomic mix and both family income and maternal qualifications. For these variables, the apparent ECE quality effect was markedly reduced when the home social characteristics were added to the models. However, we found slight, persistent positive effects of some ECE quality variables over and above the effects of the home environment. These effects were for attitudinal as well as cognitive competencies.

Generally, the associations found applied across the board—of general benefit to children's performance no matter what their social background. Children from low-income homes benefited more than others if they had experienced the highest quality in terms of staff guidance in their final ECE experience.

The overall length of early childhood education experience did not make a marked independent contribution after age-5 scores and family resources to the cognitive competencies. However, overall ECE length of experience appeared to do so for the attitudinal competencies. There was a benefit to those who had 48 months or more ECE experience, compared with those who had less than 24 months, and a benefit to those who started ECE between the ages of 1 and 2, compared with those who started after age 3.

Other Research Findings

It has been suggested that one reason why ECE can have long term effects is that it also boosts non-cognitive skills (our attitudinal competencies), and thus can increase motivation levels (Cunha et al, 2005).Non-cognitive skills have also been shown to be associated with the probability of dropping out of school, spending time in jail, smoking, and teen pregnancy. Each of these outcomes is most likely for those with low cognitive and non-cognitive skill levels, and is extremely unlikely for those with high levels (Heckman et al, 2004).


  1. The study does not include children who have no ECE experience. The pilot for this study found it difficult—and expensive—to identify and find such children, given that in New Zealand, the majority of children have had some ECE experience by the time they start school. A study that followed children from birth would be able to include those with no ECE experience more easily, though numbers would still be low.
  2. More detail is given in Wylie, Thompson et al. (2004).
  3. More detail is given in Wylie, Hodgen, Ferral, and Thompson (2006).