This article describes a cross-national project on the role of childcare and early education in social inequality, and summarizes its results. In this project, we looked at how inequalities are created through all forms of childcare and early education from parental care to external forms of care, and in different country context of childcare settings. We concentrated particularly on three topic: 1) the childcare choices of families of different social background, 2) the role of early parental involvement and care for educational success and achievement gaps, and, eventually, 3) the consequences of early education and care for social inequality in educational opportunities. Twelve country-specific studies from Europe and US and a cross-national comparative study on 14 OECD countries contributed to the project. Our findings show that disparities among children of different social backgrounds start early in the family due to a different character of parental engagement and parent-child interaction between families, and tend to grow substantially through the early childhood years. We also find a high social selectivity of childcare arrangements as children from higher social backgrounds are more likely to attend institutional childcare and education (of better quality). However, although children coming from the most disadvantaged backgrounds participate less in the institutional childcare, they benefit most from the early education and care programmes. Yet, these gains seem to be rather discrete in size. We conclude that early education may contribute to reducing early achievement gaps, although overall social in equality in educational outcomes is rather robust and perhaps cannot be combated with preschool education alone.

Keywords: social inequality, childcare arrangements, early education and care, cognitive outcomes, children