Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



  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 but—for a complex of reasons—has 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. Much—but not all—has 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 behaviour.

  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 deprivation—a 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 provision.


  During the 90s two highly complementary—but quite separate—intellectual 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 Contribution—identifying an apparently more effective approach[1]

  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 successful.

  3.2  To some extent initial interest focused on the structure of secondary education (successful countries invariably offer pupils different—albeit always rigorous—pathways 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 schools—notably in Barking and Dagenham—with 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 involved—while still urging the adoption of interactive whole class teaching—to begin looking at what was happening in these successful countries before primary school.

  3.5  It emerged that a pre-school kindergarten cycle—remarkably similar in all the successful countries but dramatically different to anything in Britain—was considered everywhere an essential pre-requisite for the pedagogy employed—so effectively—in 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 countries.

The "central European model" of pre-school/kindergarten education

  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 than knowledge.

  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 extra year;

    —  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 not—with 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 hand—a 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 skills—clearly visible to parents—which 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 dyslexia—as understood in the UK or US—simply do not figure in these systems.

  3.14  Two other brief points should be made. First, although ruthless and focused in its aim of forcing and intellectual development of disadvantaged children—this 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 school education

  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 others—and if necessary, much harder—to keep up with what is in fact an accelerating and challenging pace. The class will not—can not—move 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 years

  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 stay behind.

  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 Contribution—An Explanation as to Why the "Central European" Approach may be More Effective

  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 too—with growing clarity—the 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 animals—particularly the visual cortex—was 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 eye1.

  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 mechanisms—particularly the endocrine and immune systems—are 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 intelligent6.

  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 hear—but 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 behaviour—although 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 likely—at 36 months—to 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 to them12

  3.39  The role of early environment on subsequent intellectual development, educational attainment and wider social performance has now been repeatedly demonstrated in longitudinal studies.

  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 group—but not the trial group—children 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 children14.

  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 outcomes.

  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 develop—or fail to develop—as 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 cognitive/intellectual development.

  3.46  Jack Shonkoff—chairman of the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development[2]—has written:

    "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 Hertzman—a 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 formal education;

    —  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 cognitive development;

    —  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.

New Problems

  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 delay/impairment;

    —  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 "terrifying";

    —  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" and—crucial for language—the understanding that one object can "represent" another19.

  3.56  Today the latest US research suggests that mothers—or other carers—first help babies learn to control their emotions and ability to pay attention—and 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 babies—developing 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 behaviour—has 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 found:

    —  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 the former.

    —  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 and youth".

  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 America—which have imposed more formal learning on young children—are 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 minority, disastrous.

  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 difficulties—most 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 this—and other long standing problems—is the adoption of an approach that highly regarded British academics have already identified as likely to promote high educational performance.

  A pressing question then, is why this has not been enough to persuade Britain to properly trial the approach?


  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 years provision[3]

  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 credit—and also to that of the last Government—that 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.

(v)   Ofsted

  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" without—when questioned—being 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,[4] 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 uncomfortable implications.

  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 Britain.


  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 on board.

  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 area—such as parts of Sheffield—where 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 one"

  (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.


  6.1  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" model.

    —  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 (92)
  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

January 2000

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

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