Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (178 - 196)

WEDNESDAY 5 APRIL 2000

MR DAVID MILLS and MRS CLARE MILLS

Chairman

  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 yourselves.
  (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.

Mr Marsden

  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.

Mr O'Brien

  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 Hungary—you 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.

Mr Foster

  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.

Chairman

  188. Can I follow that by saying that, in a sense—and if you can substantiate that—what 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 people—a speech and language therapist and a World in Action television producer—coming 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 valuable—Smithers, Reynolds and a whole series of people.

Mr Foster

  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?

Chairman

  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 works here.

Charlotte Atkins

  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.

Dr Harris

  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 children—again, this goes to the heart of the problem that we are facing—I 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 the evidence.
  (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.


 
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