Examination of witnesses (178 - 196)
WEDNESDAY 5 APRIL 2000
MILLS and MRS
178. Can I thank you both for joining us. We
have heard much of your work and some of us have seen a great
deal of it on television, so it seemed to us obvious to invite
you in because you have some very interesting views about these
early years. Can I ask you just to say a few words to introduce
(Mrs Mills) I am Clare Mills. My background is in
speech and language therapy. I worked for five years in a speech
and language unit in Brent as the speech and language therapist
attached to that unit. It was a unit for five to seven-year-olds
in a mainstream primary school. Before that I ran a speech and
language pre-school group in Ealing. That was for three years
and for one year in a pre-school language group in Brent. Before
that I was involved in the pre-school playgroup for my own children.
(Mr Mills) I am a hack. If anyone five years ago would
have predicted that I would be here giving evidence to you today,
I would have thought they were dreaming. It was only by accident
that I got into this area and when I did get into it, I was shocked
at what I found and the evidence, as it has accumulated, I have
spent a lot of time over the last five years looking at it, is
breathtaking in this area.
179. Well, you are here in a sense because you
challenged the orthodoxies. What is wrong with the orthodoxies,
if you like? You have been tilting at a degree of complacency
in the early years.
(Mr Mills) Let me give you a very hard example. Evan
asked a very sensible question earlier, which was when should
children start learning to write and I think if you ask that question
in Britain, I very much doubt if you will get any sensible answer
from anyone. A few handwriting experts have suggested that it
is much later than OFSTED suggest. However, if you go to Hungary,
in the early 1970s, after a pilot scheme involving 500 children
and a second pilot scheme involving 1,000 children, they conducted
a massive study of 10,000 children, with 200 or 300 indices of
development, to find out when these various things actually occurred
in most children. One of the discoveries they made was having
analysed what is actually required to write, and they analysed
that very carefully, the bulk of children develop that skill between
5.5 and 6.5. I forget the exact figures, but it is about 50 to
60 per cent of children really have the fine motor skills to write
between 5.5 and 6.5. Now, that gave them a lead to understanding
why some children, when they started teaching them to write properly
at six, and of course they were doing gross motor skills, sand
trays, and all those sorts of gross motor skills, but when they
actually started to learn to write specific letters at six, why
some children were having difficulty at six, and they were associating
that with depressed performance thereafter. Therefore, they thought
it was quite important to see, although they do not believe that
motor skills really can be affected by environmental pressures,
they did try very hard to see if they could develop the fine motor
skills a little bit earlier before children went to school at
six, and they took another 500 children, and they used every single
technique they could to see if they could improve these fine motor
skills, and I think it made not a blind bit of difference, so
they had to accept that some children, because they could not
delay writing any later than six, but some children would not
be quite ready for it, but that it was better first of all to
continue with what they were doing. However, on the basis of such
a rigorous evidential process, you have to be rather impressed.
Now, that evidence may be flawed and it may be that OFSTED and
the DfEE have better evidence which suggests that children are
able to write at four or 3.5, but I have not seen that evidence,
and there is other evidence which suggests that the Hungarian
picture is right. That evidence has been shown all over the world
by many people, in Australia and New Zealand, and they have sent
people to Hungary to see it, but no one from this country has
gone, and it might be, one might argue, that nobody knew about
this evidence, but they do know of it and they have known since
1997 that there is a massive research programme and that there
is good evidence that suggested that what we were doing in this
country was wrong and the Hungarian evidence not been contacted
by anybody. It sits there, this massive data. It has not been
translated into English, but it sits there, and it may answer
some of the questions you are trying to raise. I think that goes
to the heart of the problem in a sense. In other countries, in
successful education systems, they have a profound belief that
intellect is largely formed by environment and that is not to
deny genetic influence, but, broadly speaking, it is formed by
environment. Over 150 years it has really led to massive investigations
as to what is the optimum developmental path of children. Now,
that is replicated in every single nursery that you see. The teachers
know exactly what any child should be doing at 3.3 months, 3.6
months, and it is set out with great clarity and it is a different
world from what one sees here where there is a sort of assumption
that intellect is formed innately and it is a sort of delicate
flower that must flourish in its own time, and that is why you
see so much confusion in what is going on in this country because
there is a completely different assumption as to how intelligence
is formed. All the evidence, all the brain evidence, everything
is now suggesting that that Central European model is the valid
one and what America and Britain have been pursuing is invalid.
180. The answer of course might be that neither
the Hungarians nor the Brits have got it right, but the answer
might be somewhere in the middle. You have talked about the evidence
suggesting that the optimum time to do this is at six and all
the rest of it, and you have referred to the brain study and lots
of discussions over the experiments with rats. What about the
brighter rats? What about the young children who are capable of
writing at an earlier stage? Assuming that your overall piece
which is based on the Hungarian model is valid, but also assuming
that there is a small group within that that can do the business
in terms of writing at an early age, what do you do for them?
How do you stimulate them?
(Mr Mills) Well, now you are moving into school education,
moving to social gradients, moving into a completely different
ball-game in a sense. There is new emerging evidence that where
you have sharp, long, socio-economic gradients, in almost any
human attribute you have lower overall levels of performance and
ability level, and where you compress the differences between
people, you tend to shove up the overall attainment, so for good
reasons I think this was understood in places like Russia, Switzerland,
Flemish Belgium. However, that does lead to the problem that you
are talking of, and how do you equate the two. There is a great
deal of evidence that if you use bright children to teach less
bright ones, they gain so enormously. In looking at evidence in
South-East Asia, it came up with the single most powerful technique
for improving the performance of children was to get them to teach
other children, so I think one of the startling realisations is
that when you look at these other systems, they have somehow found
a way of playing off the needs of the bright children with middle-class
parents and the needs of the disadvantaged children. We are not
saying that that is necessarily correct, but it ought to be tried
here. It may be wrong.
181. It is a slightly pejorative example, and
forgive me, but the most vivid I can think of immediately is in
the early years some sort of echoing of the monitor system that
they had in the 19th Century where the brighter children at the
age of nine and ten were put in to teach.
(Mr Mills) Absolutely. In America there is some very
good research which suggests that the value to children who teach
other children is so great that it cannot be restricted to the
brighter children and it must be widened. It is such a powerful
technique that it must be made available to the disadvantaged
children. In Belgium what you are seeing, Antwerp, the children
who have difficulty in learning to read, and they are mostly children
from North Africa, when they have conquered those problems, they
are taken back to teach the new children coming in. That is a
reflection of the fact that in a sense what you see out of some
very successful systems is the elite being formed.
182. Clare, you have come from a background
in Brent which must be one of the most multi-cultural, challenging
parts of the country where this particular thesis of David's has
presumably been tested to destruction. What is your experience?
(Mrs Mills) I think that the brighter
children can be sort of extended laterally, whereas the slower
children would be pushed linearly. The brighter children would
be extending their social skills, learning how to communicate
in a clear and precise manner to help those slower children and
they are gaining a great deal. The problem is in persuading the
parents that they are gaining a great deal and that they are not
being pushed on to read the next reading book or to solve numerical
problems, so it is to persuade the parents that they are gaining
an awful lot in social skills, in oral language skills and they
are in fact being taught a leading role in society. 183. Is that
an issue that teachers or educators in early years are reluctant
to grasp because of that possible parental concern?
(Mr Mills) I think it is, yes.
Chairman: I am conscious that we only have 15
minutes and if we could have short questions and shorter answers
we would be grateful. We want to get the most out of this.
184. Very briefly, picking up on the evidence
which you obviously find so compelling, is there any evidence
that you have looked at which would suggest that families where
there are more than one child, the younger child benefits by having
an older child to monitor it in comparison to single child households,
and also in comparison to the eldest child, because that would
be the natural logic to base from your conclusions?
(Mr Mills) For every additional child in the family
there is a reduction in the learning, yes.
185. It appears there could be counter evidence?
(Mr Mills) That is within the family, we are talking
about within the pre-school environment.
(Mrs Mills) Which is much more structured.
186. This then leads to a series of other questions
principally about the interrelationship between family and a structured
environment. My concern is that the evidence that was gainsaid
in Hungary was during a period when the emphasis upon structure
and state intervention and, if you like, authority structures
were very much in place and the family was somewhat less pronounced.
It may be a metaphor for our own times where there seems to be
a dysfunctional family trend, which is a great concern and has
many implications, and that is why I am very unclear as to the
genuine context of the evidence that you rely upon as relevant
to the society that we live in today in this country?
(Mr Mills) Clare has just been to Russia where the
belief at the height of the Soviet system in the family was enormous.
Curiously, when you actually look at these countries you come
up with some rather surprising answers, but yes, Hungary was a
centralised state and if one was trying to base what Britain should
do on Hungaryyou should have given me time. The reality
is that you will find exactly the same thing in German Switzerland
and exactly the same thing in Flemish Belgium, integral processes
in a bourgeois middle class society, and there does seem to be
something which is universal and maybe related to child development
in this, rather than being culturally specific.
187. You say in your paper that in your opinion
the early years provision in Britain, "was a chaotic hotch-potch".
Can you substantiate that a bit more?
(Mr Mills) I do not think anybody who has looked at
this is going to come to any other consideration, even the DfEE's
own investigation at the moment. I have it here, I can read it
to you. Last November they did an interview with 135 managers,
those interviewers revealed that key terms such as "assessment",
"teaching", "play", "work" and "learning"
were interpreted as meaning different things. The DfEE itself
in its own investigation into early years is saying that this
is a serious problem. There is no real understanding of what early
years should be trying to do. There is no yardstick to which people
can measure the performance. There is just this confusion everywhere.
188. Can I follow that by saying that, in a
senseand if you can substantiate thatwhat we are
hearing is that you are pretty much a lone voice with this argument.
There is a large number of people in professional organisations,
and we have heard some this morning, many people, practitioners
and academics, who do not seem to be persuaded by your arguments.
Why do you think that is?
(Mr Mills) Here are a couple of peoplea speech
and language therapist and a World in Action television
producercoming in and invading their territory. I can see
a great deal of reason why they should resent what we are saying
and feel rather bitter against us. We are coming in from nowhere.
We do not have the institutional levers, but where there are arguments,
we are not saying we are correct, we are saying that there is
sufficient evidence to justify a proper trial of this other model,
this alternative model. When you say that we are not getting support,
we are getting surprising support from some of the leading educationalists
in this country, particularly people who have been involved in
comparative work and feel that Clare's expertise, not mine, is
actually rather valuableSmithers, Reynolds and a whole
series of people.
189. You mentioned the academic support that
you are suddenly getting, can you supply the Committee with a
list of who is coming behind your efforts?
(Mr Mills) Very easily.
190. That would be useful. As you have put it,
up until very recently it had been chaotic, what has changed?
(Mrs Mills) I do not think it has changed, has it?
There is an initiative called the National Training Organisation
which is supposed to dovetail all the different training requirements
for the pre-school practitioners. I talked to a colleague of mine
who actually trains nursery assistants and she teaches a B-tech
course and the B-tech course is only one of the possible courses
you can take for a nursery assistant. You can take an NNEB course,
you can take an NVQ course and then there is training for nursery
teachers, which is the normal primary school training course,
and there is no cohesion at all between any of these courses.
Certainly, my colleague knew nothing about the National Training
Organisation, which is supposed, in their policy document, to
actually dovetail and standardise some of these qualifications.
(Mr Mills) My understanding is that the QCA is putting
up quite a decent battle in trying to improve matters and it runs
into problems with OFSTED and Number 10 and maybe problems not
even necessarily in the DfEE in these matters.
Charlotte Atkins: I just wondered whether you
thought that the early child development and childcare partnerships,
and also Sure Start, would help in any way. What do you think
needs to be done then? What is it that you are suggesting? Do
you just sort of throw that out of hand?
191. Can we nail this down? Let me add to Charlotte's
question. What are the three things we should start doing in this
country to get this right?
(Mr Mills) We must not try to do it too quickly. It
needs to be a properly conducted trial of an alternative approach
which starts initially at three, but we need to take it back to
zero and just explore the best that can be found in these very
successful education systems and have a go at seeing whether it
192. Are you suggesting it does not happen here
at all? Are you suggesting that everything in Hungary is good
and everything in the United Kingdom is bad?
(Mr Mills) No.
193. Are you suggesting that there is no good
practice in this country?
(Mrs Mills) Yes, of course, there are always good
practitioners, there are intuitive, charismatic nursery teachers
who know exactly what they are doing, who have actually looked
themselves into the developmental norms that should be required
of children up to the age of five. I think there is not much basis
of developmental theory in the primary teacher's training course
and very little evidence of the knowledge of how language develops,
especially how oral language develops, which is the absolute fundamental
for later intellectual development. For instance, looking at the
best assessment scales there is absolutely no understanding of
the primacy of the oral language before the necessity for literacy
skills come in. There is absolutely no understanding of this at
all. I think training qualifications need to actually take much
more thought and requirement of developmental norms and should
be much more structurally based on theoretical theories.
194. I am really keen to understand why we do
so badly at tests at nine compared to other countries, not just
Hungary and Flemish Belgium, but a whole series of other countries,
if one looks at the tables. I am also aware of other orthodox
ideas coming into medicine and medicine then saying, "Well,
prove it", but not really necessarily proving it, like this
in rats, it is really the evidence coming from the exam results
and the test results. Firstly, can you let me know how this trial
is going and when it will report in the Sheffield DfEE trial that
you talked about? Secondly, can you explain what they do in Scandinavia
and why they are actually getting better results than this country,
and that is not, presumably, the Central European lot?
(Mr Mills) No it is not. Again, I think if you look
at Scandinavia, they get the early education bit right, they do
not push kids, they do impress differences, but they take that
approach right through the education system. If you go to Denmark
you will see some very good early years provision, but if you
look at successful countries in education terms it seems that
they take the first seven or eight years pretty gently and they
are doing a lot of very subtle things through play. At about seven
or eight they begin to put the pressure on kids and they really
start pushing them very hard. That would seem to be the optimum
education system for getting high performance, so that if you
look at the Scandinavian countries they do not do as well as the
Central European ones, but they are going for social cohesion
to compress these differences between people for social reasons.
It is perfectly valid for them to do that, it is education for
a slightly different purpose. If we want to maximize educational
outcomes, then the Central European rather than the Scandinavian
model seems to me to be the one that is of the most interest.
It may be, as a country, that we should go to the Scandinavian
model, which is trying to compress differences. It is a choice
we have to take as a society.
195. But in terms of the Sheffield study, when
is that going to (Mr Mills) It is staggering what
they are finding. Let me just tell you, it is frightening. They
have done baseline assessments on 195 children in four nurseries
in an industrial area of a white working class area, and of those
childrenagain, this goes to the heart of the problem that
we are facingI think 85 per cent of them were intellectually
impaired. 60 per cent of the girls at three and 80 per cent of
the boys were severely linguistically delayed, and yet because
of OFSTED and the pressure, nursery teachers are frantic to teach
these children, and there is terrifying environmental damage.
There is also evidence from at least one of the schools involved
that their SATS results in literacy are declining. One just wonders
what is happening that this can happen in David Blunkett's own
constituency without any understanding of what is going on. The
worst thing, of course, is that you now have inherited intellectual
deprivation. One of the great problems is that many of the staff
in these nurseries have actually come from this intellectually
deprived background themselves and have great difficulty with
the linguistic concepts and understanding.
196. Are you doing a comparative trial? Are
you taking hundreds of children and doing it your way and hundreds
doing it the other way and comparing them later? That would be
(Mr Mills) That is the intention. It has not been
funded sufficiently. We managed to get a bit of funding from British
Telecom to get something moving and there is a question that if
they are going to help they have to make that decision. If they
can continue that, then it will be a very important project.
Chairman: You have given us much food for thought,
David and Clare. Thank you very much for your evidence, and we
hope that you will manage to engage them soon. Thank you.