Select Committee on Education and Employment First Report



88. According to the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology overview of the research on the development of the brain and its relevance to Early Years education,[196] educators often cite scientific research on brain development when arguing for particular Early Years educational practices.[197] Neurobiological research is often cited as evidence for the importance of enriched, stimulating early childhood environments (see Box below).


Animal studies
Early studies showed that laboratory rats raised in an 'enriched' environment, with wheels to spin, ladders to climb on, and other rats to play with, have up to 25 per cent more synapses per neuron in brain areas involved in sensory perception than 'deprived' rats, raised alone in a lab cage with no 'playmates' or toys. Furthermore, the rats raised in complex environments perform learning tasks better than deprived rats. In subsequent studies, Greenough and his colleagues showed that the brains of adult rats form new synapses in response to new experiences and toys (Greenough et al., 1987).

Human studies
Recent studies have demonstrated that Romanian babies reared in severely deprived conditions, with no sensory or social stimulation, are more likely to have delayed development of skills such as walking and talking, and impaired social, emotional and cognitive development (O'Connor et al., 1999).

Greenough, W. T., Black, J. E., & Wallace, C. S. (1987). Experience and brain development. Child Development, 58: 539-559.
O'Connor, T.G., Bredenkamp, D & Rutter, M (1999). Attachment disturbances and disorders in children exposed to early severe deprivation. Infant Mental Health Journal20(10): 10-29.

Source: POST Report 140, June 2000

89. As noted in the Box, research on animals suggests that the ability to create synapses in response to new experiences seems to persist throughout life. So, although the effects of complex environments occur more readily in younger animals, they endure throughout life. Overall, the research does not support the argument for a selective educational focus specifically on children's earliest years.[198] Although babies' brains undergo a large amount of change in the first few years of life, parts of the human brain continue to develop well into adolescence and beyond. Even the adult brain is capable of change. It is therefore difficult to make direct links from the neuroscientific evidence to specific early childhood environments, experiences and early child­care policies.[199]

90. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology overview concluded that while studies on brain development are of interest, they are more difficult to relate to Early Years education policy than studies on the development of children and different educational systems. Certain skills, such as walking, talking and emotional understanding, develop naturally in almost all children allowed to play with their siblings and peers and explore their environment. Other skills, such as reading, writing and maths require teaching, but there is no convincing evidence that teaching these skills early (before about six) is advantageous. International studies suggest that a later school starting age (age six or seven) might be beneficial, provided that school is preceded by high­quality pre­school provision. Comparative education studies support the results of developmental psychology studies, finding that well­resourced pre­schools that encourage the development of emotional, cognitive, social skills and feelings of self­efficacy through natural activities such as play and exploration result in lasting social and educational benefits, especially for children from deprived backgrounds.[200]

91. We recommend that the advances in knowledge about brain development should be kept under examination by DfEE-funded researchers in the education field so that Early Years policy is kept up to date and consistent with the available scientific evidence.

196  POST Note 140, June 2000. Back

197  For example, David Mills Q. 179. Back

198  POST Note 140, June 2000, page 4. Back

199  POST Note 140, June 2000, page 5. Back

200  POST Note 140 June 2000 page 12. Back

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