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Can children’s learning suffer if they start school too soon?

2012 February 3
by Paul Vallely

Do we send our children to school too early? There is a deep ambiguity in the report by the National Audit Office into the state of the nation’s nursery provision. On the one hand it acknowledges that the Department of Education has done well providing nursery places for at least 15 hours a week for 95 per cent of our three and four-year-olds, in the face of increased demand. But it also questions whether the initiative – first introduced by Labour in 1998 but to which the Coalition government has kept commitment – is working.  Children’s levels of development have improved at the age of five but there is no significant uplift in ability at age seven. Are nurseries good value for money in preparing out children for school, considering the scheme costs taxpayers some £1.9 billion a year?

The National Audit Office, in focusing on the money as it always does, is asking the wrong question here. A direct correlation between cash spent and early academic results is far too narrow a focus. All the research evidence internationally suggests that the key question is not the age at which children start learning but how the early years that learning are structured. Countries such as Hungary, Switzerland and Flemish-speaking Belgium are far more successful in teaching literacy and numeracy even though formal teaching of reading, writing or arithmetic does not start until children are six or seven.

Indeed it may be that starting school too young is damaging. An ability to recite numbers from 1 to 10, and even recognize the number symbols, can disguise a failure to understand that 8 is more than 3 if a child in not cognitively ready for the concept. Learning is complex. It does not occur in a vacuum. Rather it is determined by factors like class, culture and gender all of which shape the interests, knowledge and understanding. Far better results can come from an early years curriculum structured not to include the three Rs but focussing on skills such as speaking, paying attention, listening, using memory which can be acquired through structured play and interactions with other children. Once they have these skills, more academic learning comes more easily. The obsession of successive governments in testing seven-year-olds reveals an inability to understand the evidence of objective research here. The nursery years are when all that begins.

There are other good reasons for taking the state of Britain’s nurseries more seriously. Helping parents manage their childcare costs and working patterns are not the principal purpose of providing 15 hours free nursery provision for 38 weeks of the year, the report notes. But those are important side-effects. Helping unemployed parents back to work, providing additional income for those already in work, and improving their long-term earnings potential, are socially significant factors. So too is the impact nurseries have on reducing child poverty and improving social mobility.

Where the National Audit Office report is useful is in highlighting the patchy nature of the provision. It shows that Ofsted inspections reveal that good or outstanding nurseries rose from 75 per cent to 81 per cent over the last two years. Yet take-up is lowest among the most disadvantaged families who would benefit most from it; areas of highest deprivation are less likely to have high quality provision. The report suggests, though the data is vague, that those local authorities which spend most on nurseries don’t necessarily offer the highest-quality – though those prepared to pay for qualified staff, rather than cutting costs with untrained nursery assistants, see a significant lift in quality. Yet it also suggests quality alone is not the driving factor how parents choose a nursery; convenience and the cost of buying additional hours are key too.

More data, as the National Audit Office suggests, is needed on all this. But a narrow focus on value for money does not serve children, parents or government well on this vital issue.

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