FURTHER MEMORANDUM FROM MILLS PRODUCTIONS
LTD (EY 77)
1. ACADEMIC SUPPORT
2. GIFTED AMATEURS
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 Belgiumdespite
hugely contrasted cultural and socio-economic conditionshave
made it compulsory. Switzerland and Russiathe 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 regimeattendance 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 reasonablebut
not necessarily preferablealternative to family care.
If mothers could not provide the care themselves,
it was accepted that grand parents, could do it just as well.
Some grandmotherswho 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 andas Robin Alexander has found
in his study of Russian, UK and US educationordinary 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 likelyalthough
we have not yet looked for research evidence on thisthat
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 carewhich
were closely studied and translated by American academics in the
late 60sremain 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 wouldas Feinstein
et al found happening in Britainsuffer 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 tryat
least initiallyto 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
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
There are two additional reasons why the compression
of differences between children could prove advantageous to middle
1. even many middle class childrenparticularly
boys who develop more slowlywill 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 roleand
it is here that parents would need to be convinced of its value.
4. RATS IN
CAGES . . . THE
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 describedas "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
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. Environmentrather
than geneticshas 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
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 bethe 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 findingswhich
are consistent with the more limited UK Bristol study in the 80sfound
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
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
Yet the "central European model" may
offer some hope of a way forward.
6. A POSSIBLE
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 maintainingthrough strict
routinesvirtually 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 toand
participate inthe 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
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
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.
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
policyas represented by "Sure Start"should
exclude the former and embrace all the weaknesses of the latter.
. . . ORAL LANGUAGE/WHOLE
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
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
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 teachingbacked by table-top
and individual/small group activitiesis 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.
8. THE SHEFFIELD
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 evidenceother than perhaps spurious
grade inflationfor the imposition of such demands on young
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
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
whilemore importantly in the long termbeginning
the retraining of nursery staff.
Teaching nursery staff to assess these skills
and how to respond to different assessments will be more difficultand
really only possible if it is made clear that this is their primary
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.
10. THE FUTURE
On all the available evidence, it would be a
mistake to think anything much can be done quickly. It is depressingbut
likelythat 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
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