Research into increasing equal opportunities through expansion of preschool education


Researchers from Utrecht University have received a substantial subsidy from the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO) for research into developments in preschool education. This extra education for toddlers between two and a half and four years with a (language) disadvantage is intended to give them equal opportunities in primary education - and their lives onward.

Starting in 2020, municipalities are required to offer preschool education to the children involved for at least sixteen hours a week. This is a major challenge for many municipalities. Thomas van Huizen, Paul Leseman, Ora Oudgenoeg-Paz, Janneke Plantenga and research agency Sardes will determine whether the implementation of this government measure actually increases equal opportunities.

Because the changes in policy can be followed over a long period, the researchers can do a so-called "natural experiment". And that is unique in Dutch research into preschool education. "Analyzing such a natural experiment is what we as economists can do well," says project leader Thomas van Huizen, "and together with pedagogues and psychologists we form a strong, complementary team."

By better preparing children for primary school as early as infants, preschool education can play an important role in creating more equal opportunities.

Thomas van Huizen
Thomas van Huizen, project leader EVENING

Preschool education and social inequality

Social inequality in the development of children manifests itself at a young age, well before participation in primary education. The children involved are usually migrant children and children of parents with a low level of education who start their school days with a language deficit. By better preparing them for primary school as early as infants, preschool education can play an important role in creating more equal opportunities.

"It is ultimately about human capital," says Van Huizen. "Educational performance, cognitive abilities and social skills are important for the rest of your life: they determine the education you will complete, the job you will find at a later stage and ultimately also: the prosperity of the country. In addition, there is a lot of scientific evidence from the United States that, for example, crime is reduced by investing in preschool education. And that, of course, is ultimately accompanied by lower social costs. "

Expansion of preschool education from 2020

Currently, municipalities offer preschool education at least 10 hours a week, but there is quite a bit of variation in that. For example, Utrecht now offers 10 hours a week, The Hague 12 hours a week and Amsterdam 15 hours a week. From 2020, all Dutch municipalities are required to realize a preschool education offer of 16 hours per week. Many municipalities will therefore have to increase their supply substantially - in many cases by around 60 percent.

In the multidisciplinary research project EVENING (the continuous of “to even” as the aim of the reform is to increase the equality in opportunities), a team of researchers led by Thomas van Huizen will analyze the effects of this reform. The researchers will look at the use of the extra offer, the quality of the educational provision and the interaction between them. Ultimately, the question is of course whether the children will actually benefit from the (changes in) preschool education.

Many people think that economics has to do with money. But ultimately it is about prosperity, and the distribution of prosperity.

Natural experiment: measuring the effect of policy reform

"Dozens of pre-school education studies have been published, but none of these studies met the methodological conditions for a so-called" natural experiment, "says Van Huizen. "That was not possible either, because such a reform had not been implemented before. We can now take measurements with different cohorts before, during and after this reform. The change occurs in reality, and with a smart design we don't have to randomize it, like in medicine studies when you give one group the drug and another group the placebo. That is why we call it a "natural" experiment. "

"That is what economists can do well," says Van Huizen with a smile. "A lot of labor market policies are also evaluated in this way. We do not have much insight into what is going on in the children's heads. The pedagogues and psychologists involved in our research team have a great deal of expertise in this area. Our added value is primarily in the development of a strong research design. Together we are now a good, complementary team, and we can actually measure the effect of the policy reform.

Many people think that economics has to do with money. But ultimately it is about prosperity, and the distribution of prosperity. Education, training and work; it is interrelated and determines the life course of people. And if you start investing early (by narrowing achievement gaps), this will yield returns in the longer term. That is the economic assumption on which this policy is based. We will test whether this is actually the case in this study."

Interdisciplinary research team

The subsidy for this research was awarded following an application to the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO) in the context of the "Quasi-experimental research pre-school and early childhood education" subsidy round. The consortium of researchers consists of: dr. Thomas van Huizen (projectleider), prof. dr. Paul Leseman, dr. Ora Oudgenoeg-Paz, prof. dr. Janneke Plantenga and employees of research agency Sardes.

The research is in line with the longer-running pre-COOL and ISOTIS projects, comes from the Education for Learning Societies research focus area and is in line with the strategic research theme Institutions for Open Societies at Utrecht University.


For questions about this project you can contact dr. Thomas van Huizen: