Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence



  Not printed.


  This is an important issue.

  It is significant that the first major examination of the effect of different forms of pre-school provision in Britain (Osborn and Milbank, 87) found children who attended play groups (run mostly by parents) performed best while those who went to early infant school classes did worst. Feinstein et al (98) found that pre-school attendance in Britain could actually reduce children's educational performance and concluded that "children benefit from time with other adults rather than premature exposure to large numbers of other children, particularly for long periods."

  In all of the successful kindergarten systems observed, there is a widespread view that families are perfectly capable of doing everything that pre-school can do. It is believed that a language rich background which brings children into continual contact with a range of adults is ideal and can not be bettered in any pre-school setting.

  There is no discernible pattern in whether kindergarten attendance is compulsory or not. Hungary and Flemish Belgium—despite hugely contrasted cultural and socio-economic conditions—have made it compulsory. Switzerland and Russia—the latter, traditionally perhaps the most extreme and successful example of the "central European model"—have not done so.

  The traditional Russian approach is perhaps the most interesting. Here one sees the strongest belief in the role of the family and of "gifted amateurs". Even at the height of the Soviet regime—attendance at kindergarten was not compulsory. In 1989 22.5 per cent of Soviet children attended no form of pre-school education and among those who did attend, the majority did not start until five or six. This is remarkable given the high rates of female employment and the fact school did not start until seven.

  While Communist ideology seemed to promote early institutional care, expert opinion and advice to parents was unanimous that children were not well served by such care, particularly up to the age of three, when it was important to avoid it if possible. After three it was accepted that it could provide a reasonable—but not necessarily preferable—alternative to family care.

  If mothers could not provide the care themselves, it was accepted that grand parents, could do it just as well. Some grandmothers—who were called "babushkas" took in other children as well. This too was seen as providing near optimum care.

  It is important to realise that traditional Russian child rearing practice is in British terms, rather middle class. Physical punishment is frowned upon. Children are disciplined through the giving or withdrawal of affection. Spoken language is enormously important and—as Robin Alexander has found in his study of Russian, UK and US education—ordinary Russians are probably more competent in spoken language than many British parents. Finally there remains in Russia a traditional approach to children which expects every adult to take responsibility for any child. This has enabled some of the strengths of the extended family to be replicated in almost any setting, however much physical disruption there may have been. (Research has shown that this "extended" form of child rearing once existed in small US communities but disappeared decades ago. It seems likely—although we have not yet looked for research evidence on this—that the same is true of Britain).

  It is important to qualify the above description of traditional Russian attitudes by pointing out that although not compulsory, some pre-school experience is widely seen as helpful to children because of the risk of their having been spoilt by grandparents or "babushkas". This remains the case, even though high unemployment and the introduction of nursery fees has meant a significant fall in the numbers of Russian children attending pre-schools. The World Bank report on Russian education (February 2000) has expressed concern about this.

  It has also been accepted in Russia that some children will need pre-school care from an early age because of broken families, inadequate parents or because of the physical/social isolation of their parents.

  The detailed Soviet programmes for such care—which were closely studied and translated by American academics in the late 60s—remain to this day a marvellous description of how pre-school care 0-6, should be provided. It is inconceivable that some children receiving such care would—as Feinstein et al found happening in Britain—suffer educationally, leaving them worse off than they would have been without it.

  One salient point does arise however. Despite Russia's profound belief in the role of the "gifted amateur", they are not used in kindergartens. Observations make the reason for this clear. While experience of parenthood and intuitive skills can create impressive care for one or two children, dealing with groups of children in an institutional setting demands very different and much greater skill. Overcoming the weakness of institutional care while exploiting its potential strength and at the same time assessing, promoting and monitoring age appropriate development of whole groups of children is extraordinarily demanding. It leaves little or no place for "gifted amateurs".


  Effective education systems appear to try—at least initially—to compress differences between children, rather than accentuate them. By secondary school, and sometimes earlier in such systems, the evidence suggests educational attainment is higher at every level of ability. The principle reason for this appears to be the fact that in these systems there is a much more positive approach to education among all pupils. Peer groups, even among working class children, tend to support the educational process, rather than oppose it. Disaffection does occur, but usually later than in Britain or America, by which time children have achieved much more.

  It is thus at least arguable that Britain should move in this direction. This raises the question of what happens to brighter/more advantaged children in such systems and how middle class British parents might be persuaded that this would be in the interests of their children.

  Three principal methods are used to help such children:

    1.   they are used to teach others: the benefit to the intellectual development of children doing the teaching has been established conclusively in the US and it has also emerged from David Reynolds' nine country ISERP project as one of the most powerful pedagogical tools available.

    2.   they are encouraged to extend themselves laterally: in central European model primary schools for example, brighter children are often expected to do as much as 30 per cent more work on a topic than other children; in Hungary this has been used to enable gifted children to compete, with distinctions, in rigorous national and international competitions.

    3.   they are allowed to move up a year: although an essential safety valve, curiously it is not a popular with parents; where such a choice is allowed (eg Hungary and the US) middle class parents are more likely to hold children back rather than push them forward. They do so to maximise the chances of success. This is a significant problem in both Hungary and the US.

  There are two additional reasons why the compression of differences between children could prove advantageous to middle class parents.

    1.  even many middle class children—particularly boys who develop more slowly—will gain from learning to read quickly and easily at six rather than suffer the long struggle with de-coding that learning to read currently involves: there is a real fear (albeit one which researchers do not appear to have looked at) that for many children, current practice must dampen at least initial enthusiasm for reading.

    2.  many middle class children have weaknesses of one sort or another: the present academic "hot house" approach maximises the impact of such weaknesses; most middle class children survive, but they would still be better off with a slower, more sympathetic approach, geared to dealing with any problems they may have.

  What is certain, though, is that any move towards compressing rather than accentuating differences between children, has to begin in pre-school. It is here that brighter/advantaged children would need to be introduced to their new role—and it is here that parents would need to be convinced of its value.


  It would be wrong to make too much of the new research. The tumult of findings are fascinating but provide little guidance to policy makers. There is certainly no one to one relationship between new evidence and policy making. It has even been argued, for example, that given the importance of early maternal care, the role of pre-school provision thereafter is of limited importance.

  Yet the evidence is crucial, although its importance is indirect.

  For perhaps a 100 years, pre-school provision in the UK and US has been based on a very different assumption to that made in countries following the "central European model". In the former it has been assumed that intelligence is innate and develops, as far it will, at its own pace. The aim has therefore been to provide a congenial environment for such development, a process often described—as "experiential learning". With this has gone a belief that children's creativity should also be encouraged. What either means in practical terms has never been properly defined nor validated by research. Worse, both intellect and "creativity" have been viewed as rather delicate flowers, easily damaged by being pushed too quickly. The net result has been that pre-school provision has been little more than custodial, or as Rosenbloom put it in 1969 "appreciative watching".

  In countries following the "central European model" the fundamental assumption about intellect has been very different. Here intelligence is seen as largely a result of environmental influences. Except for a small number of children (perhaps 5 per cent at either end of the distribution) genetic inheritance is viewed as relatively unimportant. This has led to a belief that nothing should be left to chance: large studies have been organised to identify developmental norms and how pre-school provision can best ensure children reach them, an approach Rosenbloom has described as "active intervention".

  The importance of the new neuro-physiological research is that it strongly suggests that this latter model is the correct one. If so, this would explain the enormous sense of purpose that has developed in pre-school systems following it. And equally, the pitiful lack of purpose in UK and US provision, which, it implies, has been caught in a tragic cul-de-sac. Environment—rather than genetics—has determined intellectual outcomes, but not in any way that has been managed or even properly understood.

5.  0-3 . . . SURE-START

  One thing the new neuro-physiological evidence establishes beyond doubt, is the importance of 0-3, although in doing so, it does no more than confirm what has already been long suspected.

  Despite this, it is difficult, without entering into political invective, to explain why the Sure Start programme has been launched. It will certainly increase the number of children with early speech and language delay who are referred early but given that therapists cannot deal effectively with present case loads what effect this will have is not altogether clear.

  Worse, while early referral of the small number of children suffering specific genetic or neurological problems is of proven benefit, the evidence suggests that early referral of the far greater number of children suffering environmental damage is, in itself, of limited benefit. However welcome extra help for disadvantaged parents may be—the overwhelming balance of evidence suggests Sure Start will achieve very little for their children and in this respect, is likely to prove an expensive failure. The US "War on Poverty" and "Head Start" programmes demonstrate this conclusively.

  Under those programmes, numerous projects which were tightly focused and thus far better resourced, failed completely. Others, while securing quick gains in IQ found the benefits washed away when the intervention finished.

  It was to investigate why this was the case that Hart and Risley carried out their seminal work in Kansas which uncovered the scale of the problem that any programme for disadvantaged 0-3 year olds faces. Their findings—which are consistent with the more limited UK Bristol study in the 80s—found that by the age of four:

    —  children of professional parents had, on average, heard 45 million adult words; children with parents on welfare had heard 13 million;

    —  children of professionals had been encouraged 560,000 times more than they had been discouraged; children on welfare discouraged 125,000 times more than encouraged;

    —  the experience of working class children in the study was closer to welfare children than those of professionals;

    —  there was a powerful correlation in children between exposure to language and IQ. IQ of children talked to most reached 150. The lowest IQ of children talked to least fell to 75.

  Hart and Risley estimated that to bring disadvantaged children up to even the level of working class children would take 40 hours of substitute care a week.

  If this sounds alarmist, it is worth recalling the scale of resources required for two "War on Poverty" programmes for children 0-3 which did work.

  The Milwaukee Project targeted the children of mothers with an IQ of 75 or below: from the age of six-eight weeks developmental professionals worked with these children, in their own homes, three to five hours a day, three days a week. Mothers had to enrol in remedial classes and there were many other elements to the programme.

  And it succeeded. Compared with a control group the children achieved an IQ gain of around 20 points and were all of normal intelligence. But the programme could only handle 17 children.

  The Abecedarian Programme in North Carolina also targeted disadvantaged children and also secured a 20 point gain in intelligence compared with a control group. This programme was more cost effective than the Milwaukee Project, yet from the age of four months it still involved children attending all-day child development care, 50 weeks of the year. During the summer before they entered kindergarten, the children were taken away for a six-week developmental summer school. Once more their mothers had to attend continuous classes. Although more cost effective, it could still only handle 50 children.

  And worse, the 20 IQ points it added to children's intelligence was all but washed away within the school system and had virtually disappeared by the age of eight.

  Such experience has made many US commentators extremely pessimistic.

  Yet the "central European model" may offer some hope of a way forward.


  It is speculative, but one possible reason 0-3 interventions in the US have been so inconsequential is that they have had too much of an individualistic bias.

  Again the traditional Russian approach is revealing. A nursery teacher and assistant will look after six or seven babies who will occupy a large play pen, the size of a small room. The pen is raised so as to put the babies faces at the same level of the carers. As babies grow into toddlers the pen's floor is lowered so as to keep the same face-to-face contact. There is a lot of emphasis on the carers maintaining—through strict routines—virtually continuous one-to-one interaction with the babies during their waking hours.

  Yet from six to nine months there is also an ever growing emphasis on encouraging interaction between children in the pen and on encouraging them all to listen to—and participate in—the continuing one-to-one interaction with each child. A simple example for instance, taken from the 1969 Soviet Pre-school Programme concerns hide and seek games for children of this age:

    "To arouse the babies' interest in each other and to acquaint them with each others' names, the nurse may use various games such as hide and seek. She puts a muslin napkin over a baby's head and, turning to the other babies, says; "Where is Alyosha? Aloysha's gone, gone!" then taking off the napkin, she exclaims: "Here is our Alyosha". In this kind of game, the attention of a small group of babies is attracted toward a specific baby, and they hear and remember his/her name."

  One glimpses here, not just good individual care, but reinforcement and replication to others, through group dynamics. An approach likely to be both effective and cost effective.

  It also feeds into the sophisticated whole group activities which kindergartens following the "central European model" use to teach children attention, listening and oral language skills.

  In turn, these activities in kindergarten prepare children for the whole group activities, predicated on sophisticated use of oral language, that comparative research finds so impressive about primary schools in successful education systems[5].

  It is the cumulative nature of what our education system could provide for children at risk, that gives rise to some hope. And it is the fragmented and possibly overly individualistic nature of most US interventions which raises the possibility that pessimism there may be misguided.

  Given the evidence, it seems inconceivable that policy—as represented by "Sure Start"—should exclude the former and embrace all the weaknesses of the latter.


    —  In observing either kindergartens or primary schools in systems following the "central European model", it is impossible to miss the far greater emphasis placed on oral language in whole group settings. It is this which perhaps more than anything else distinguishes school and pre-school practice in such countries, from that in Britain.

      It is interesting that the same emphasis occurs in good speech and language units within British mainstream schools. The approach has emerged in such units, just as in foreign kindergartens, as the most effective way of taking children through three crucial developmental steps.

    1.   the development of attention, listening and memory skills, the first objective of both "central European" kindergartens and British speech and language units.

    —  children entering kindergartens find themselves sitting in a circle with all other children in their class, two to four times a day; they see the other children sitting quietly, listening to the teacher and taking part in a dialogue with her: they will soon discover that at any moment, they too may be expected to contribute to this dialogue.

    —  three to four year olds would be expected to cope with group sessions of 20 minutes or so which would routinely include a listening activity, a language/vocabulary activity, action song/nursery rhyme, and another attention activity: children not only learn to listen, attend and refine memory skills, but also how to take turns and co-operate with one another.

    —  children view such groups as a rewarding form of play: even disruptive and disturbed children can be persuaded to participate.

    2.   the development of oral language skills:

    —  attention, listening, memory, turn taking and social skills are all an essential base for the development of real ability in oral language; again the whole group is not only an ideal context to develop spoken language, it is also the only way an individual kindergarten teacher can maximise verbal interaction with all the children she is responsible for.

    —  four to five year old children take part in whole group sessions lasting 30-40 minutes; these move at a rapid pace with a variety of play activities and music; through these, children learn to use precise, appropriate vocabulary, develop verbal reasoning skills and begin to experiment with and learn about the structure of language itself, something vital for later literacy.

    3.   the development of conceptual, mathematical and pre-literacy skills:

    —  as oral language skills develop, kindergarten teachers use them to ensure five year olds have the more complex understanding needed for the formal, academic learning they will experience at school.

    —  children from language rich backgrounds will normally acquire such understanding at home: schools in the UK and US often assume all children have acquired such skills and do little to teach them; yet research in both countries shows that a high proportion of children begin school with far less understanding than teachers realise.

    —  one US study found 93 per cent of five year olds from low income homes could not judge the relative magnitude of two numbers under ten; even among upper middle class children, 25 per cent were unable to do this: one UK study, in a middle class area of East Sussex, found approaching half of four to five year olds did not understand simple concepts such as "short", "different" or "last".

    —  kindergartens following the "central European approach" use whole group techniques to teach a high level of such understanding: by age five these sessions last 30-45 minutes and demand considerable listening, memory, collaboration and concentration skills from children; they also further extend oral language: but their real purpose is to target conceptual/mathematical understanding or metalinguistic knowledge.

    —  the VHS cassette sent with the original submission, shows a typical example of a kindergarten session targeting mathematical understanding.

  Whole group teaching—backed by table-top and individual/small group activities—is so powerful it has become the primary pedagogical tool in "central European" kindergarten. But it is based on a coherent developmental framework embracing the whole of the pre-school cycle. Learning is cumulative and children do not move onto the next step until they are confident at the present level.

  The training given kindergarten teachers to teach in this way and the extensive help provided in post contrasts starkly with the inadequacy of British training.


  Not Printed.



  A traditional weakness of British early years education has been its lack of purpose. Government policy has now imposed a sense of purpose, namely the teaching of early reading and writing, which has probably made everything worse. It is difficult to conceive of any evidence—other than perhaps spurious grade inflation—for the imposition of such demands on young children.

  It is striking that while the academic demands made on young children in Britain are about the most difficult faced by children anywhere, the intellectual demands made on them are slight. The level of concentration and listening skills, verbal reasoning and conceptual understanding demanded of children in countries following the "central European" approach are far in excess of anything demanded of British children.

  It seems likely, therefore, that improving British early years provision will involve imposing a radical new sense of purpose: different both to past and current practice. Successful provision elsewhere indicates very clearly what this should be. It suggests early years staff should be given detailed developmental norms and assessed on their success in bringing children to these norms. It suggests, specifically, that staff should:

    1.  first ensure children reach specific, age appropriate norms for attention, listening and memory skills;

    2.  then ensure children reach specific, age appropriate norms for oral language;

    3.  then ensure, through the use of oral language, that children acquire the appropriate conceptual, mathematical and pre-literacy understanding they will need in formal education.

  Achieving this and providing pre-school staff with sufficient knowledge and skill to deliver such objectives will take time and no doubt involve difficult political decisions about the kind of education, as a society, we want to develop.

  In the meantime, some relatively easy first steps in this direction seem likely to yield real benefit.

Suggested Short-Term Improvements

  1.  Specific developmental norms, covering the attention, listening and memory skills that should be expected of three and four year olds should be drawn up and circulated to every pre-school establishment.

    —  it should be made clear that ensuring children reach these norms is the first priority for any nursery;

    —  simple advice as to how nursery staff can assess and promote such skills, monitor their acquisition and deal specifically with children under, at or above the norms, should also be drawn up and circulated;

    —  it should be made clear that for an initial period (at least a year) these are the only outcomes that will be inspected.

  2.  Towards the end of the initial period, simple but specific development norms for the oral language skills expected of three to four years should be circulated.

    —  it should be made clear that ensuring children reach these norms is the second priority for nurseries;

    —  once again simple advice as to how nursery staff can best assess and promote such skills, monitor their acquisition and deal specifically with children under, at or above the norms, should also be circulated;

    —  after an appropriate period for introduction, inspection should be extended to cover success in bringing children to these norms.

  3.  Early in the process, a move should be made toward developing a much clearer and better qualified hierarchy among nursery staff.

    —  at the top, nursery teachers, who on qualification or re-qualification should be paid much more than current nursery teachers: it will be essential such teachers have extensive training in both child development and language acquisition;

    —  below them nursery assistants, paid at present rates for nursery teachers: although improved training will be eventually important, this grade could initially embrace current nursery teachers who are reluctant or unable to retrain.


  The first step proposed, the drawing up of attention, listening and memory norms would be easy: not least because the early year's curriculum of at least four countries set it out in considerable detail.

  Helping nursery staff teach these skills, would also be relatively easy. The whole group methods they would need to master are simple and require only limited oral language skills. Nevertheless it would provide immediate benefit to many children while—more importantly in the long term—beginning the retraining of nursery staff.

  Teaching nursery staff to assess these skills and how to respond to different assessments will be more difficult—and really only possible if it is made clear that this is their primary responsibility.

  The second step, introducing simple oral language programmes, will also be more difficult, but in delivering them, nursery staff will be able to draw on heightened skills resulting from the first step.

  In the longer term, it seems likely that only new and much better trained "nursery teachers" will be able to deliver the far more demanding language/conceptual/mathematical programmes which will need to be introduced if Britain is to reach the highest standards of provision found elsewhere.

  NB.  These proposals, although backed by far more evidence than that supporting present policies, would still involve introducing change which has not been properly tested in Britain. The priority must remain to get a rigorous British trial of the "central European model". If this succeeds, the successful methods could then be replicated with confidence.


  On all the available evidence, it would be a mistake to think anything much can be done quickly. It is depressing—but likely—that improving the intellectual performance of British children will take several generations.

  The evidence from Sheffield supports wider fears that Britain is now suffering substantial inherited linguistic deprivation which may, in certain areas, have grown, cumulatively over several generations.

  It seems possible that in some areas a malign circle has arisen which fates children to ever lower standards of parenting and language skills; and which feeds on itself by allowing those who have themselves suffered from this deprivation, a central role in the early education of young children.

  Breaking such a circle will take more than one generation. In time it must be the ambition to replace it with the converse, a benign circle that can certainly be seen in countries pursuing the "central European model" of education. In these countries high quality care, predicated on advanced use of oral language, backed by deliberate efforts to minimise failure among young children, clearly feeds back onto itself, in subsequent generations, through better parenting and better pre-school provision, as kindergarten teachers improve, however slightly, on the care they themselves received.

  If Britain has entered such a malign circle, breaking it will involve, above all, an act of political will. It will not come about through piecemeal change but only by a determination, initially controversial, that education must serve the needs of the majority, rather than the minority. It is a supreme irony that the evidence suggests such change would serve the interests of the minority very well indeed.

Mills Productions Ltd

April 2000

5  See for example Robin Alexander (99), "Culture in Pedagogy across Cultures in Alexander, Broadfoot and Philips (eds) "Learning from Comparing: new directions in comparative educational research, Vol 1, Oxford: Symposium Books, pp 149-180. Back

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