MEMORANDUM FROM MILLS PRODUCTION LTD (EY
David Mills is an independent television producer
who previously worked for the BBC, Thames and Granada Television
for whom he made over 60 editions of World in Action. He has specialised
in education for 15 years.
Clare Mills LRCSLT is a speech therapist. Until
1996 she worked in the speech and language units at Mitchell Brook
Primary School, Brent. Besides extensive classroom work with five
to seven year olds her role involved monitoring children in pre-school,
reception, year one and year two classes throughout Brent.
David and Clare Mills are currently working
on a series about early year for the BBC and PBS. In making these
programmes they are collaborating with leading academics on both
sides of the Atlantic. In 1998 they made a Channel 4 documentary
based on the Report they had written in 1997 for David Reynold's
task force on mathematics' teaching. Both contrasted early years
practice in Britain with that in more successful education systems.
1.1 Until 1990 the available evidence made
early years education a confused backwater of education about
which it was difficult to say anything very useful. Since then
however, new evidence has transformed any evaluation of its likely
potential: it suggests this is the area of education on which
all else depends. The transformation in understanding is startling
butfor a complex of reasonshas been all but ignored
by the Department of Education and by agencies concerned with
education, particularly Ofsted. Until this changes, improvement
in British education will, at best, be fitful and partial: leaving
the bottom 30-40 per cent of children ever further behind.
1.2 The following paper briefly describes
the new evidence, offers suggestions as to why it has not been
acted upon and sets out the policy implications that it raises.
1.3 The paper is based on five years research
by its authors David and Clare Mills for television programmes
and books they are preparing. Wherever possible references are
provided for specific research findings mentioned. References
are not provided for general views held by groups of relevant
academics, educationalists and teachers. But there are credible
and authoritative sources for everything in the paper. Muchbut
not allhas been confirmed by authors' own independent research.
They will be happy to provide references and/or further information
about any part of it.
The significance of what has happened in the
90s becomes clear when contrasted with previous developments and
the British perception of those developments.
2.1 Both Switzerland and Hungary claim to
have been the birthplace of the kindergarten education: Switzerland
in 1825 and Hungary in 1828. There is no doubt however, that the
real development occurred within the Austria-Hungarian Empire.
This became the model for Russian provision in the 1860s and Japanese
provision in the 1880s. When the Japanese reinvigorated kindergarten
education in the 70s they once again took enormous interest in
Hungarian methods. In 1971 a glossy Japanese translation of the
Hungarian kindergarten handbook was published and many of its
key recommendations incorporated into Japanese practice.
2.2 What has emerged from the 175 years
of kindergarten and primary school development in these countries
might be roughly described as the "central European model".
From a British perspective, the central thrust of its early years
provision seemed, until the 90s, to be a rather obscure obsession
with sensory perception and a very late start to formal learning
(six/seven). British Montessori, Steiner and Waldorf nurseries
demonstrate elements of this model as it probably existed in the
early 20th century. There had been a lot of development since
in the "central European model" but there is little
evidence that this was known in Britain, let alone understood,
prior to the 1990s.
2.3 Elsewhere in continental Europe and
also in the United States, while the structure was imitated, the
content was not; it remained loose and extremely varied.
2.4 In Britain neither structure nor content
were copied and early nursery provision was a downward extension
of school education. Between the 20s and 40s this changed and
nursery provision became identified with child care. After the
war provision was reduced as it became increasingly felt that
the best place for young children was with their mothers. Although
as education secretary Margaret Thatcher promoted some expansion,
she failed to win much political support for this and during the
70s and 80s increasing demand was largely met through an extension
of the playgroup movement.
2.5 This was despite the fact that from
the early 60s there was a growing pressure for "compensatory"
early years provision. This was based on accumulating evidence
that on a wide range of measures, from delinquency to height,
children from deprived homes performed much less well than others.
Also largely American research from the 40s began to demonstrate
the importance of learned, rather than genetically determined
2.6 In 1965 the massive US Head Start programme
was set up after Jerome Bruner, then at Harvard, and Urie Bronfenbrenner
urged the Johnston Administration to trial compensatory early
years provision. In Britain, in 1967, the Plowden Report recommended
nursery provision in area of deprivationa recommendation
that led to some expansion in inner city areas.
2.7 But even with Margaret Thatcher's support
little was done. What expansion there was came largely from local
authorities. In 1991 Kenneth Clarke, then Education Secretary,
said nursery accommodation for all children "is not a realistic
prospect" and that if a mother wanted to go to work it was
her responsibility "to sort out her own arrangements".
Remarkably, given the evidence in 1991, this was not an altogether
unreasonable view. There are three reasons for this:
1. the evidence on which the calls for compensatory
early years provision was based was far from complete: the correlation
between low socio-economic status and poorer outcomes did not
prove a causal connection between early environment and subsequent
performance: the correlation might well have reflected irreversible
genetic inheritance or cumulative structural, material deprivation:
in either case, narrowly focused compensatory early years intervention
would have been, largely, an irrelevance.
2. nor was there any convincing evidence
in 1991 that such intervention achieved very much; disastrously
in 1965 the Johnson Administration had rejected Bruner and Bronfenbrenner's
request for experimental trials in favour of the immediate, widespread
introduction of compensatory intervention under the Head Start
programme. The multitude of often ill conceived and fragmented
schemes that resulted, proved a considerable disappointment and
in 1991, would not have justified any large scale investment in
such intervention in Britain especially as it was by then known
that any early cognitive gains (in effect, IQ) resulting from
early intervention soon disappeared when children started school.
3. it was not until 1993 that the first significant
finding emerged supporting intervention; this was the High/Scope
Perry Preschool Project longitudinal study and was significant
because the project had been one of the most comprehensive of
the early intervention programmes: yet even this showed that while
the children involved showed improved earnings, home ownership
and stability in later life, long term cognitive improvements
had been minimal.
Yet even by 1993, when Kenneth Clarke made his
statement, new evidence was emerging which would fundamentally
change any evaluation of the potential importance of early years
3. NEW UNDERSTANDINGDEVELOPMENTS
During the 90s two highly complementarybut
quite separateintellectual developments, one in Britain
and one in the US, transformed understanding about the potential
importance of early years' provision. British academics identified
an approach which appeared far more effective than that in Britain.
American, neuro-scientists and biologist identified why this should
be the case. A third development, in both countries, made the
need for a new approach ever more urgent.
The British Contributionidentifying an
apparently more effective approach
3.1 In the 90s several academics looking
for clues to Britain's poor educational performance investigated
education systems identified by comparative research as particularly
3.2 To some extent initial interest focused
on the structure of secondary education (successful countries
invariably offer pupils differentalbeit always rigorouspathways
through secondary education). It was soon realised however the
Britain's comparative disadvantage was apparent by the end of
primary school, so that whatever contribution secondary education
made, it could not be the root problem.
3.3 Interest then turned to the pedagogy
primary schools. Huge differences were discovered. It was found
that successful countries invariably used interactive whole class
teaching rather than the individualised teaching then current
in British schools.
3.4 Interactive whole class teaching was
trialled in British schoolsnotably in Barking and Dagenhamwith
some success, but nothing like the success achieved with near
identical methods in Hungary, German Switzerland, Flemish Belgium
or the Pacific Rim. This led the academics involvedwhile
still urging the adoption of interactive whole class teachingto
begin looking at what was happening in these successful countries
before primary school.
3.5 It emerged that a pre-school kindergarten
cycleremarkably similar in all the successful countries
but dramatically different to anything in Britainwas considered
everywhere an essential pre-requisite for the pedagogy employedso
effectivelyin primary schools.
3.6 This led to the first real understanding
in Britain of the "central European model" of early
years provision and of its likely crucial role in facilitating
the approach to primary school education found in all these successful
The "central European model" of pre-school/kindergarten
This provides a quite separate and distinct
pre-school cycle of education which does not educate children,
but prepares them for education. It develops intellect rather
3.7 In the "central European model"
the purpose of the pre-school cycle is to compress socio-economic
differences between children so that it can pass on to primary
schools homogenous groups of children who can be taught together.
3.8 To make this possible, two things are
seen as essential:
that the pre-school cycle must extend
until children are at least six (seven in some countries) and
that even then, perhaps as many as 20-30 per cent will need an
that children should not be taught
formal literacy or numeracy until all begin together in the first
year of primary school.
3.9 Everywhere, the "central European"
model of pre-school/kindergarten concentrates first on teaching
children to regulate their emotions, attention span and social
behaviour. It is believed that while advantaged children learn
much of this at home disadvantaged children do notwith
disastrous consequences for themselves and often, those around
them. Such skills are considered a necessary pre-requisite for
any effective intellectual development.
3.10 Once these skills are in place kindergartens
begin forcing intellectual development. This involves training
memory and building up oral language skills and through these,
conceptual and mathematical understanding.
3.11 Gross and fine motor skills (the latter
as a preparation for writing) are developed but there are no letters
of written numerals.
3.12 Middle class support for this is secured
with a sleight of handa successful trade off between the
interests of middle class children and others. Although the former
do not move ahead and away from other children in a "linear"
direction, they are stretched "laterally". Pre-school
is made valuable for them because they are used as role models,
leaders and even teachers of weaker children. In doing so they
acquire social, leadership and intellectual skillsclearly
visible to parentswhich will serve them well in later life.
Indeed, it might be argued that they are being prepared for the
elite positions they will eventually take up.
3.13 Middle class children enjoy another
advantage too. However advantaged, a significant minority nevertheless
experience problems of one sort or another. Although the slower
start and "compensatory" education are primarily intended
for less privileged children, it is also available for middle
class children. As a result problems such as dyslexiaas
understood in the UK or USsimply do not figure in these
3.14 Two other brief points should be made.
First, although ruthless and focused in its aim of forcing and
intellectual development of disadvantaged childrenthis
is done almost entirely through play. Secondly, it is seen as
essential that in kindergarten such children should never feel
that they are failing. The intention is to bring them forward
without ever knowing they were behind.
3.15 British school based speech and language
units have developed a remarkably similar curriculum to that found
in the "central European" model. It is significant that
in Britain health professionals and educationalists involved with
special needs have developed techniques to help backward children
that are deemed useful for all children elsewhere, albeit at a
younger age. The rationale for this is clear. Backward children
need to be helped through the same developmental steps that normal
children take. Elsewhere child development has remained at the
core of mainstream education. In Britain it has slipped away from
education and become the province of health and of those involved
in the pathology of development.
The "central European" model of primary
3.16 Much of the pre-school/kindergarten
approach is carried through to primary school.
3.17 Teaching is based on a "collective"
or "whole group" approach. In this, once again, advantaged
children do not move ahead and away from others. They work on
the same topics as the rest of the class (although invariably,
they are expected to tackle more difficult questions about it).
They are also expected to help, even teach, slower pupils.
3.18 Once again this approach rests on a
sleight of hand. While class work appears to move at a pace set
by slower children, the reality is very different. Slower children
are expected to work harder than othersand if necessary,
much harderto keep up with what is in fact an accelerating
and challenging pace. The class will notcan notmove
on without them, but they are under a lot of pressure not to hold
others up. And they are well rewarded for not doing so. They do
not fall behind and know that they are in a real sense keeping
up with the fastest and most able pupils.
3.19 It is a use of group and peer pressure
to motivate all children to move at a pace acceptable to the more
advantaged and their parents. And it works. The startling success
of the approach has been identified in one study after another.
For example the percentage of 10/11 years olds with reading difficulties
would typically be 3-8 per cent depending on the number of second
language immigrants involved in the sample. This compares with
30-40 per cent in Britain and America.
3.20 Less advantaged pupils are less likely
to become disaffected with education and when this does occur,
it comes later, by which time such pupils have reached significantly
higher levels of attainment than their equivalents in Britain
or the US.
3.21 Surprisingly perhaps, more able/advantaged
pupils do not suffer. Comparative studies show them clearly ahead
of British or American children at 18. There is some evidence
that these children overtake their British and US peers within
three to five years of starting school. Weaker children overtake
their US and UK peers within one to two years.
Comparison with the British/US approach to early
3.22 In British and US early years provision
the core belief is that children should move at their own, individual
pace. In effect this always means facilitating the fastest
progress of the more privileged and able. It also always means
encouraging children be begin formal literacy and numeracy as
soon as possible. It is considered inevitable that more privileged
or more able children will move ahead of their less advantaged
peers. This belief is now buttressed by British Government policy
which insists on the early introduction of formal literacy for
those ready for it.
3.23 As a result, children entering early
years provision in Britain or America find the large pre-existing
differences which already divide them quickly accentuated and
reinforced. Extensive research shows very clearly this has two
very damaging effects:
young children, who have an accurate
perception of their own strengths and weaknesses quickly sense
failure and try to avoid the cause of that failure: it means that
many children who feel themselves falling behind begin withdrawing
from the educational process;
by accentuating and reinforcing differences
between children, early years provision creates groups of children
with widely varying attainment and attitudes. This makes teaching
difficult and seriously undermines any attempt to introduce more
successful "whole class" teaching techniques. Both these
factors play a major role in creating the long tail of underachievement
which is the hallmark of both the British and American education.
3.24 In the US where, as in Britain, formal
literacy has been introduced ever earlier, the outcome has been
so obviously damaging to significant numbers of children that
in one State or another, almost every conceivable device has been
used to try to mitigate the harm being done (eg encouraging socio-economically
deprived children to start school later, repetition of the final
year of kindergarten etc). Nothing has worked. Once behind, children
3.25 This has convinced many leading academics
that it is the "individualistic" approach itself which
is at fault. They believe that even by the time children leave
US kindergarten, it has caused many of them to suffer what is,
in effect, irreversible harm.
This evidence should in itself, have been enough
to persuade Britain to re-examine early years' policies and trial
the potentially more effective "central European" model.
This has not happened even though, quite independently, other
evidence has emerged which provides a powerful intellectual underpinning
for this approach.
The American ContributionAn Explanation
as to Why the "Central European" Approach may be More
During the 90s there has been in America what
can be described accurately as an explosion of understanding about
brain development, both in animals and humans: understanding that
provides a telling and persuasive intellectual argument for the
"central European" pre-school cycle.
It suggests intellect is largely determined
by environment: particularly the care received in the first three/four
years of life. It reveals toowith growing claritythe
critical importance of early intervention when such care is inadequate.
3.26 For decades prior to the 90s it was
known that the brain development of many animalsparticularly
the visual cortexwas highly dependent on environmental
stimulation. If at critical points in development the necessary
stimulation failed then relevant brain development was damaged
or inappropriate. Perhaps the classic illustration of this was
the 1963 demonstration that kittens who had one eye covered during
the first three months of life remained permanently blind in that
3.27 During the 90s it became clear that
the central mechanism for this was the proliferation of synapses
(connections between brain cells) in young animals and their equally
rapid elimination if not used, a process called "neural sculpting".
In this way the brain allows mechanisms to develop for specific
purposes. If the purpose is not present, no mechanism will develop2.
3.28 It was found too that in animals there
are critical periods not just for sensori-motor skills but for
emotional, cognitive and even social development as well.
3.29 For example brief human "handling"
of new born rats was found to enhance their ability to deal with
stress, reduce ageing and improve cognitive function late in life3.
Early fostering of hyperactive rhesus monkeys by experienced and
caring mothers transforms their life chances. Unfostered they
are unlikely to survive to adulthood and remain virtual outcasts.
Fostered they become indistinguishable from other monkeys and
even more likely to become high status troop leaders4.
3.30 Besides synapse proliferation and elimination
a wide range of other physiological mechanismsparticularly
the endocrine and immune systemsare modified by early experience
and to play a role in bringing about such outcomes. Recently the
process has been described as "biological embedding"5.
3.31 While the new research demonstrates
that cognitive functioning in animals can be determined by environmental
influences early in life, it also shows that some of the mechanisms
involved operate well into adult life.
3.32 For example, while both young and adult
rats allowed to exercise on a tread mill develop new blood vessels
in their brains which became denser and more muscular (better
able to cope with the continuous motor activity involved in long
periods of exercise) the same rats rewarded with food for mastering
a complex maze developed not just new blood vessels but new synapses
as well. Their brains had become not just more muscular, but more
3.33 During the 90s research has shown that
there are identical processes in humans.
3.34 It has emerged that in the first three
years of life there is a massive expansion of synapses in human
brains and an almost equally massive elimination. More than half
of the cells in the retina die before a child is one year old.
Over one third of the neurons in the cerebral cortex are eliminated
in the first three years of postnatal life7.
3.35 It has emerged too that just as in
animals there are critical periods for the development of human
sensori-motor systems. Short periods of early visual deprivation
imposed on one eye have devastating effects on later vision. Audio
deprivation can also have profound effects. For example in the
first 6-7 months babies can hear (and in their "babbling"
phase often make) every conceivable human sound. But thereafter
they quickly lose not just the ability to make sounds they do
not hearbut even to recognise them. This explains why the
Japanese are unable to tell the difference between "rake"
or "lake" or more famously, "rice" and "lice".
There is no equivalent of the English "r" and "l"
sounds in Japanese so Japanese babies do not hear these sounds
and their brains do not develop mechanism to develop them8.
3.36 Similarly it has been found that just
as in animals there are critical periods in early childhood for
the development of emotional, social and intellectual behaviouralthough
these are more accurately described as "sensitive" rather
than "critical" periods. Again the endocrine and immune
systems are involved as well as synapse proliferation and elimination.
3.37 For example early experience of stress
can have profound and lasting consequences. Babies whose mothers
are depressed are much more likelyat 36 monthsto
be withdrawn, aggressive, disobedient and have behavioural problems
such as crying and sleep disturbances as well as changed brain
activity and high level of stress hormones9. Early exposure to
stress can also lead to decreased level as serotonin (which modulates
brain impulses) in children which is the single most accurate
predictor of later violence or suicide10.
3.38 Early environmental experience can
also have a profound effect on subsequent intellectual development.
Language development between 14 and 26 months, which strongly
predicts subsequent educational attainment, is dependent on the
amount of language heard11. Extended mathematical understanding
(eg that three drum beats can stand for three of anything) should
normally develop between 30-48 months but is highly dependent
on environment. In one study, while 75 per cent of middle class
five year olds could judge the relative magnitude of two single
digit numbers and perform simple addition, in the same community,
only 7 per cent of working class children could. These differences,
which were highly predictive of subsequent school attainment,
were environmentally, not genetically determined. The children
involved had no difficulty grasping the concepts when exposed
3.39 The role of early environment on subsequent
intellectual development, educational attainment and wider social
performance has now been repeatedly demonstrated in longitudinal
3.40 Perhaps the best known of these intervention
studies is the Carolina Abededarian Project in which, starting
at around four months, high risk children were given day care
which set out to develop oral language and pre-literacy skills.
At 18 months the cognitive scores of children in the trial began
moving ahead of the control group. By 42 months, while trial children
had IQ scores in the normal range, around 100, average IQ scores
of children in the control group were almost 20 points lower.
And in the control groupbut not the trial groupchildren
of particularly low-IQ mothers became borderline mentally retarded13.
3.41 However the increase in IQ did not
bring trial children to the level of socio-economically advantaged
children (average 107). And though a positive impact remained
nine years after the intervention, at age 15, gains had fallen
significantly during the school years. Measures of educational
outcome however, particularly reading/mathematics test scores
and continuation in school remained much more positive for these
3.42 Many other intervention studies have
revealed a similar pattern. They continually reaffirm the crucial
importance of a mother's level of education (almost invariably
a proxy for socio-economic status) in determining IQ and educational
3.43 In trying to explain socio-economic
differences in intellectual development, recent research has focused
on the role of "regulatory" systems (the ability to
control emotion, attention and social behaviour). This is because
while up to the age of 18-24 months tests of infant intelligence
neither predict later intelligence nor show socio-economic differences,
tests of emotional control, attention and social skills do both15.
3.44 This has led some American researchers
to conclude that a child's ability to control his or her emotions,
attend to others and interact with them is an essential pre-requisite
for normal intellectual development.
3.45 They believe that the development of
such skills is rooted in neuro-physiological processes which developor
fail to developas a result of interaction with carers in
the first 24 months of life: they believe that it is the quality
of this interaction which is the most powerful predictor of subsequent
3.46 Jack Shonkoffchairman of the
US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Integrating the Science
of Early Childhood Developmenthas
"the central importance of nurturing, responsive
and stable relationships for healthy emotional and cognitive development
in the early years is well established . . . there is no question
that something important is happening in the brains of infants
who are well cared for that is different from what is going on
in the brains of infants who are abused or neglected".
3.47 Clyde Hertzmana director of
a prestigious Canadian inter-disciplinary team set up to investigate
the new evidence puts it this way:
"an un-stimulating, emotionally and physically
un-supportive environment will affect the sculpting and neurochemistry
of the central nervous system in adverse ways, leading to cognitive
and socio-emotional delays. The problems that children so affected
will display early in school will lead them to experience much
more acute and chronic stress than others, which will have both
physiological and life path consequences."
3.48 The Canadian investigation has led
it to conclude that the differential care of young children is
the root cause of the socio-economic gradients found in educational
outcomes. It has found that in education, the shallower these
gradients are, the higher performance is at every level of ability.
They have found this applies both between and within countries16.
3.49 However important early environmental
experience may be to human development, the same research has
established that, just as with some animals, the human brain continues
to respond to environmental stimulation well into adult life.
For example, recent autopsies have shown that the brains of university
graduates who had remained mentally active have up to 40 per cent
more synapses than high school drop outs and significantly more
than mentally inactive graduates17.
3.50 The new evidence has led academics
in north America to argue for:
early intervention policies which
seek to compress differences between children before entry to
pre-school programmes which concentrate
on developing emotional control, the ability to pay attention
and to interact with others as a necessary pre-requisite for subsequent
pre-school programmes which then
move on to conceptual/linguistic competencies susceptible to short-term
environmental influence yet essential for the easy mastery of
formal literacy and numeracy;
school programmes which carry forward
pre-school intervention programmes and provide long term support
for disadvantaged children18.
None of the American academics so far interviewed
involved in this research have any understanding of the "central
European" model of kindergarten and primary school provision:
nor that these demands exactly describe that system.
It makes the argument that this model should
be trialled in Britain even more powerful.
Yet there was another development in the 90s
which makes that argument, intellectually, overwhelming. A development
which frightens academics on both sides of the Atlantic.
3.51 For perhaps a decade, those caring
for children with speech and language problems in Britain have
been saying that they thought the number of children experiencing
such problems was increasing. If true, it was alarming, because
these problems are invariably a symptom of underlying intellectual
impairment. (And also, the new US evidence suggests, often the
result of poor parental care in the first 24 months of life).
3.52 Recent findings suggest not only are
the fears true, but that the situation is worse than expected.
It suggests that a significant and increasing number of British
children are experiencing varying degrees of intellectual damage
in early childhood. It is known that the difficulties they suffer,
quickly escalate within the education system.
3.53 This comes from many different sources
and is convincing. It includes:
a study of 11 NHS trusts over 10
years: this reveals a real increase in not only the incidence
of speech and language problems children are suffering but also
in their severity;
a study investigating the listening
skills of year old babies (an effective predictor of subsequent
speech and language delay) in a number of English and Scottish
locations over the past 15 years: it found increasing numbers
of children suffering listening and attention problems in every
location where the tests were repeated;
a study, still in progress, investigating
the speech and language development of three and a half year olds
in a white working class area of Sheffield:
ninety per cent of the children so far
tested have performed at significantly below the level expected
of such children;
tests have shown high levels of intellectual
it means in the area being studied, a
significant number of children are entering nurseries and being
exposed to formal literacy, even though they only have the speech,
language and intellectual skills of two year olds.
an Anglo-Italian comparison of oral
skills in 1,200 matched children in Manchester and Rome, drawn
from every socio-economic group:
the oral skills among the Manchester
children, across the board, were so poor, they are described as
the Manchester children were almost one
year behind their Rome peers.
3.54 Although the evidence shows children
from lower socio-economic groups are at much higher risk, the
evidence also reinforces powerful anecdotal claims that an increasing
number of those from the middle class are also suffering intellectual
impairment in early childhood.
3.55 Since the 70 sit has been known that
mother's have an enormous influence on their children's intellectual
development with the length of the mother's education alone proving
the best predictor of a child's future educational attainment.
Earlier research identified ways mothers were thought to directly
encourage their babies ' intellectual growth. It identified, for
example, the importance of mother-baby play in developing the
"referencing" of objects and the understanding of their
"permanence" andcrucial for languagethe
understanding that one object can "represent" another19.
3.56 Today the latest US research suggests
that mothersor other carersfirst help babies learn
to control their emotions and ability to pay attentionand
that it is this which then enables intellectual development to
take place. For example it identifies the importance of the "mother's
register"the accentuated rhythm and pitch used by
mothers in every culture when talking to babiesdeveloping
listening and attention skills20.
3.57 Whatever the exact mechanisms may be,
what is frightening academics in both Britain and America is that
the traditional family environment which encouraged the necessary
parental/carer behaviourhas gone. The new one militates
against it. Numerous factors are involved. They range from changes
in family structures and employment to eating habits and push
chairs. All have an impact on parental/carer behaviour and through
this on children's intellectual development.
3.58 The difference between the experience
of different children is frightening. One recent American study
by the time they were four, children
of professional parents had, on average, heard 45 million adult
words. Children with parents on welfare, only 13 million.
while children of professionals had
been encouraged 560,000 times more than they had been discouraged
(eg "don't "do that"/stop that"). The children
on welfare had been discouraged 125,000 times more than encouraged.
Children of blue collar workers were closer to the latter than
that there was a strong correlation
between exposure to language and IQ. At the age of three the highest
IQ of children talked to most reached 150. The lowest IQ of children
talked to least fell to 75. The higher IQ levels attained by the
age of three remained stable when the children were re-tested
at age nine21.
3.59 Throughout America there is a growing
alarm about the consequences of changing parental behaviour. In
1996, reviewing the trends of over a quarter of a century which
he had studied in detail, Cornell's Urie Bronfenbrenner wrote:
"Today they have reached a critical stage
that is much more difficult to reverse. The main reason is that
forces of disarray, increasingly being generated in the larger
society, have been producing growing chaos in the lives of children
3.60 One of the world's leading authorities
on child development, Daniel Keating of the University of Toronto
wrote in 1999:
"During periods of profound social change,
such as the present, some sectors of society are at high risk
of encountering a decline of social support and hence an inadequate
nurturing of developmental needs. Families with young children
are often the most vulnerable. Although economically poor families
are at the highest risk for this form of family insecurity, the
changes we are currently experiencing are so widespread that negative
consequences are occurring even for the children of families that
are moderately secure economically. In particular, labour market
policies that do not recognize the extensive demands placed on
families with young children, combined with the dearth of good,
affordable child care, create a situation in which adequate nurturing
of the next generation cannot be assured".
3.61 Recent developments in education in
Britain and Americawhich have imposed more formal learning
on young childrenare thought to have intensified the impact
of these changes. Numerous studies have shown that children who
enter the education system behind others fall ever further behind
as they progress through the school system.
3.62 The position is worse in Britain than
America, but it is revealing that when Chicago's Barbara Bowman,
chair of the Federal Committee on Early Years Pedagogy, saw the
Channel 4 documentary, "Too Much Too Young" (submitted
to the committee with this paper) she sent a copy of it to the
Chicago School Board, as part of her effort to stop them imposing
inappropriate demands on the city's five year olds.
3.63 In Britain the demands she is opposing
are already made on four year olds. The insistence that they should
be taught to read simple sentences and write letters and numerals
is, for almost all of them, detrimental, but for a significant
3.64 British and American academics say
it is changes, primarily in the family environment, but also in
education, which are causing the present problem. While some children
do have substantial genetic weakness of neurological damage which
explains their difficultiesmost do not. The problems these
children suffer are unnecessary: they are induced purely by the
family and social environment they experience and then intensified
by early schooling.
There is thus worrying evidence that more children
are suffering intellectual damage early in life, something likely
to intensify Britain's already long tail of underachievement.
Impressive new American evidence suggests the
best way of tackling thisand other long standing problemsis
the adoption of an approach that highly regarded British academics
have already identified as likely to promote high educational
A pressing question then, is why this has not
been enough to persuade Britain to properly trial the approach?
4. WHY IS
Any explanation for this can only be speculative
but is likely the following have all played an important role.
(i) The failure of traditional British early
4.1 It is difficult to overstate the importance
of this failure. Until very recently early years provision in
Britain was a chaotic hotchpot without shape or direction. Its
aims were vague and means for achieving them, even vaguer. Development
has been at the whim of local organisers. Obscure and unproven
beliefs about "experiential" learning although often
repeated, hid a reality which helped few children and left many
actually worse off22.
4.2 Traditional organisations involved with
early years are right to argue that present policies are damaging
children but there is no evidence they have developed any credible
alternative. Government ministers are right to argue that it would
be unthinkable to hand responsibility back to them. The tragedy
though is that the vacuum they allowed to develop has now been
filled by individuals who know evenless about child development
than they do.
(ii) From Opposition to Government
4.3 The unanimous view of academics investigating
successful education systems that interactive, "whole class"
school teaching was clearly associated with superior educational
outcomes at all ability levels was correct and timely. It came
when the present Government was in opposition and formulating
policy. It is to its creditand also to that of the last
Governmentthat both have adopted the policy and pursued
it with vigour.
4.4 Yet it was a preliminary finding. The
same academics subsequently discovered that something very important
was happening in successful educational systems before children
started school and that it was this which made interactive whole
class teaching so successful. Yet this discovery came when the
present Government was close to taking power. It was not the time
to be changing policies. The new evidence was hardly heard. And
nor, given the way it was expressed, is this altogether surprising.
(iii) Professional Competencies
4.5 The academics involved in the research
were educationalists, well qualified to evaluate school pedagogy
and confident in urging policy based on such analysis. But when
they began looking at early years provision in successful education
systems, they immediately moved beyond their professional competence.
Early years provision in these systems is based on a profound
and complex understanding of child development. Here mainstream
education has lost such understanding. It is therefore not surprising
that the academics involved, who could easily establish the importance
of what they saw from measurable outcomes, should have difficulty
in understanding how those outcomes were achieved. And that therefore
they should express their conclusions with a proper reticence.
4.6 Conversely, health professionals, specialist
teachers and educational psychologists, easily able to understand
exactly how those outcomes are achieved, have had an equal reticence
to express themselves forcibly on issues deemed to be outside
their province. It is all understandable, perhaps even admirable,
but it has not helped policy development.
(iv) Educational Constituencies
4.7 It is clear the professionals best able
to understand and replicate the early years provision being observed
in successful systems, are speech and language therapists and
the specialist teachers and educational psychologists who work
with them. They have no influence and no constituency within the
DfEE. Key advisors to DfEE ministers would hardly be aware of
their existence. They are closer to health than education. The
idea of putting such expertise at the heart of a potentially major
policy development is barely conceivable. But it may not just
be the best way forward, it may be the only way forward.
4.8 Ofsted's record in dealing with the
new evidence approaches culpability, even negligence. While key
figures at the DfEE have made an effort to address it (both Margaret
Hodge and Michael Barber have visited Switzerland) those at Ofsted,
particularly Chris Woodhead, have ignored it. Chris Woodhead rejects
the evidence as of "dubious validity" withoutwhen
questionedbeing able to display any knowledge of it whatsoever.
4.9 It is worth quoting a small but perhaps
revealing example of Ofsted's attitude. Accompanying this paper
is a VHS cassette showing a Hungarian kindergarten mathematics
class for five-year-olds. It is intended to give some visual impression
of the reality of the "central European" approach. It
is a very ordinary class in a very ordinary kindergarten far from
Budapest. The kindergarten has since closed and the teacher featured
last heard of, working in a shoe shop.
4.10 Neverthless, as can be seen, the ordinary
Hungarian five year olds shown displays concentration and oral
and conceptual skills which are extraordinary. Part of the lesson
is even a preparation for the introduction of algebra. Yet at
five, almost six, they have not been introduced to any written
numerals or letters.
4.11 Given the impressive performance of
the Hungarian education system in teaching mathematics and literacy,
this evidence, so alien to current policy, has to be confronted
and understood, if only so that it can be rejected.
4.12 Ofsted officials, who had actually
paid for the class to be video taped, viewed part of it and then
pointedly ignored it. They refused requests to find its editing
and sub-titling so that it could be viewed and properly considered.
Eventually the Teachers Training Agency agreed to do so. But neither
they nor Ofsted have ever looked at the video of confronted its
4.13 Ofsted readily helped pay for a video
of a Hungarian primary mathematics class, which did not question
its policies, to be edited and distributed to every school in
5. POLICY IMPLICATIONS
The implications are clear. Carrying them out,
immensely difficult. A continuing first trial in Sheffield has
revealed just how difficult. The following takes this experience
5.1 Urgent attention needs to be given to
the possibility of introducing into Britain a trial pre-school
cycle, running from three to six, similar to the "central
European" model: a trial of earlier provision for infants
considered at risk should also be considered.
5.2 To design the trial, a multi-disciplinary
team, featuring education and health professionals should be formed.
This should identify best practice abroad and plan how this can
best be incorporated into the trial. Speech and language therapists
as well as the specialist teachers and educational psychologists
who work with them should be centrally involved.
5.3 The team should also identify best kindergarten
teacher training abroad and use this in planning a new experimental
training programme intended to produce the first generation of
pre-school teachers capable of replicating the trial if it succeeds.
It is likely that only institutions currently training speech
and language therapists and specialist teachers who work with
them, would have the skills to deliver such a training course.
5.4 The trial should be located in a deprived
areasuch as parts of Sheffieldwhere any intervention
would be better than what is currently happening. Sheffield already
has expertise in trying to set up such a trial. This should be
incorporated in the new plans. Sheffield also has excellent training
courses for specialist speech and language teachers.
5.5 If the trial of the new early years
cycle succeeds, it will be essential to pay those trained to replicate
it, the same rate of pay as senior secondary school teachers.
(This is currently policy in Flemish Belgium where it is now believed
the role of such teachers is more difficult and more critical
than those in secondary schools).
5.6 As the pre-school trial proceeds, a
new trial "year one" should be designed for six year
olds to take children forward from the pre-school cycle; this
should be along the lines of "year one" in the "central
European" model. The intention would be to add "pull"
from the school system to the "push" of pre-school cycle,
just as found elsewhere. Barking and Dagenham, which has pioneered,
as far as it has been able, the adoption of the "central
European" model in Britain should be centrally involved in
the design and experimental implementation of this new "year
(Although some curriculum change would be necessary,
delivering it would be relatively easy; DfEE policies are already
helping teachers teach in the way required).
5.7 In turn a new trial year-two/three/four/five
should be designed to take children to the end of Key State 2.
5.8 Rigorous assessment, to see whether
children moving along the new route out perform control group
children at the end of the various key stages will be essential.
6. A FOOTNOTE:
6.1 One of the best examples of the "central
European" model of kindergarten and pre-school education
is Flemish Belgium. Any visit there should include Bruges to see
the approach working in a middle class area and Antwerp to see
it in a deprived area with a large, alien immigrant population
from north Africa.
6.2 Key interviewees the Committee should
consider interviewing include:
Prof. Sig Prais of the National Institute
of Economic and Social Research; undoubtedly the first academic
to identify the importance of the "central European"
model of early years provision and the one who has worked hardest
at trying to understand it.
Ann Locke, of the Department of Human
Communication, Sheffield University and currently working on an
initial trial project in Sheffield; her experiences are critical
to any attempt to put in a new and (unlike the present one) properly
funded trial project.
Graham Last, now a regional director
of the national Numeracy Strategy but previously a senior inspector
in Barking and Dagenham; a former teacher and headmaster fluent
in German, he has enormous experience and intimate understanding
of the Swiss German version of the "central European"
Bob Daines, educational psychologist
in West Sussex. He has considerable experience of both present
shortcomings and how they might be tackled in a trial project
such as the one outlined above.
1 Hubel, D & Wiesel, T (63)
2 Kotulak, R (99)/Bruer, J T (99)0
3 McEwen, B S & Stellar E (93)
4 Suomi, S J (91)
5 Keating, et al (99)
6 Greenough, W & Black, J E in Gunnar & Nelson
7 Meinecke, D L & Rakic, P (92)
8 Gopnik, Aliso et al (99)
9 Dawson, Geraldine et al (94)
10 Kruesi, M J P et al (92)
11 Huttenlocher, J E et al (88)
12 Case, R & Griffin, S (91)
13 Horacek et al (87)
14 Martin, Ramey and Ramey (90)
15 see Keating D P et al all (99) for review
16 see Keating et al (99) for a review
17 Jacobs, B UCLA
18 see Keating et al (99) for a review
19 Copper, Moodley & Reynell (78)
20 Gopnik et al (99)
21 Hart B & Risley T (95)
22 Feinstein et al (98)
Mills Productions Ltd
1 This research is described in "Britain's Early
Years Disaster", David and Clare Mills (1997) and summarised
in Channel 4 Dispatches "Two Much Too Young" (1998)
both of which are enclosed with this report. Back
2 A Federal multi-disciplinary committee established in 1998 to
review the new evidence about early childhood: it will report
late in 2000. Back
3 For a fuller and reference description of traditional British
coverage see Chapter 3 Britain's Early Years Disaster, Part 1. Back
4 See Chapter 2, Britain's Early Years Disaster, Part 1. Back