Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Early years education "not improving"

On my way to work this morning, I heard a BBC radio news bulletin which announced that, over the past 6 years, early years education in England has not improved at all, in spite of an investment of over £21billion. That maths and language skills among the under-fives were no better now than they were 6 years ago.

This got all sorts of thoughts churning around in my head, and I had to check the BBC website the moment I got in. Firstly to make sure that the amount spent was in fact £21billion and not £21million. Secondly to get a more definitive view on the language and maths skills situation. Oddly, the website seems to hint at exactly the opposite situation. While it doesn't specifically mention maths and languages (or numeracy and literacy as they're otherwise known), and we are reminded that the scheme is in its infancy (no pun intended) indications are of improved outcomes.

So now I find myself wondering: are they improving or aren't they?

I should perhaps point out that I shouted out loud at the radio in my car "What the heck are under-fives doing in school in the first place?" Followed shortly thereafter by "Why is a four year old be learning language and maths anyway?" This is a subject on which I feel strongly, as long-standing readers of this blog have probably noticed. I have strong objections to four-year-olds being subjected to formal education for seven-plus hours per day. Many of their parents don't put in that number of hours a day at work!

The education system that was the norm for me had children starting pre-school the year they turned 6, "big school" the year they turned 7 (if they were ready), lasted for 12 years (or 13 if you include the pre-school year) and had a school day that ranged from under 5 hours for the littlies to 6 hours for the high-schoolers, with even the longest day finishing in time for a late lunch so that the afternoon could be given over to extramural activities. The school system to which I brought my children has kids starting school at the age of 4, goes on for 14 years (if you choose to do A-levels, 12 if you don't) and has a school day that, from the off, lasts for over 7 hours, with a narrower provision of extramural activities. And it is not my observation that the product of the English education system, is better informed, with a wider general knowledge, increased adeptness at processing new information or exercising critical thinking. If anything, I would have to say that the opposite is true.

So... what is the point of starting kids in school at the age of 4? And if they must be in school at that tender age, surely there are other things more important to their development than literacy and numeracy? Surely they would benefit more from learning skills like co-ordination, balance, co-operation, interdependence, independence, planning, self-expression... the list goes on. Important life skills. All of which can be learned through play, music, art - climbing, running, getting wet, getting dirty, sharing toys, dressing up, settling disputes, singing action songs... and do not require a four-year-old to sit still for hours on end.

Why do we assess the efficiency of the education system by testing the maths and language skills of four-year-olds? For the sake of these children, I would like to say: there is more to life!


Harold Jarche said...

The research data show that more institutionalised care (education) is not in the best interests of the development of our children.

For example, check out the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study on children up to 4 1/2 years.

First, this comprehensive study, conducted over 10 years showed that maternal care is very important:

"Children with higher quantity (total combined number of hours) of experience in non-maternal child care showed somewhat more behavior problems in child care and in kindergarten classrooms than those who had experienced fewer hours."

The bottom line from the NICHD report is that:

"Many family features are more strongly and more consistently linked to child development outcomes than are child care features for children up to age 4½ (and even into kindergarten). The following characteristics predicted children’s cognitive/language and social development: parents’ education, family income, and two-parent family compared to single-parent family; mothers’ psychological adjustment and sensitivity; and the social and cognitive quality of home environment."

For the early years, it's not about numeracy or literacy, but supporting families (however they may be constituted) so that children can be nurtured in a caring environment before they go to school - IMO.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, Harold - hence my question as to what they're doing in school so young in the first place! However, I realise that many parents need to get back to work, and will be compelled to place their children somewhere when that happens. I just wish that that "somewhere" offered more nurturing and less schooling; more about relationships and less about the other 3 R's.

In a thousand years, when archeologists dig up the remains of our society, what do you suppose anthropologists will make of us?

Family Ezekiel said...

I will try to make a very quick post about why I think the debate around this story missing some key values.

The Government made a decision to try to provide access to the sort of early years provision that middle class kids benefit from to all children in the country. I think this was a very brave and morally defensible decision - based on more than short term political gains.

By including millions of kids from backgrounds where developmental goals are reached later - the assessments (which are NOT tests!!!) - the results were bound to 'drop'.

To echo Harold's point - The biggest indicator of a child's educational success, upto secondary school, is the educational level of the mother. The more the mum has studied, the better the child does at school (by all indicators - not just test scores).

So - middle class kids will always tend to do better! But the investment in a national early years strategy is a very real attempt to close the divide of access to decent early years provision.

The differences between a child-minder, who was unsupervised and unsupported in helping their charges reach developmental goals (just the normal ones - like eating unaided, etc) - and the montessori kids of hampstead - were an unacceptable (in my view) example of lack of equality of access in the UK.

Now, as Karyn knows, I have big criticisms of the National Strategies.

However, the perceived failings of this investment in children should not be misunderstood.

It was not about getting little kids into school early - but helping families (as Harold asked for!)

There is much wrong with our society - and anthropologists of the future might have some harsh interpretations of our decisions as a culture.

But the attempt to share the best in understandings of child development to all children, whatever their social background, must be seen as a good thing, (even if partially flawed).

This was a very damaging news story and I hope that some good comes from it by parents realising that they must take more responsibility for their children's development - either through playing with them more, reading - but always giving more time!

Rant over!