'Make every pre-school a good pre-school'

In the second of a five-part series, we look at a landmark study in Britain that shows pre-school education benefits children.

The benefits of going to pre-school translate into an extra 41 points – or the difference between getting seven grade Bs compared with seven Cs. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Oxford University professor Edward Melhuish is aware of Singapore's impressive showing in international education tests and the Ministry of Education's attempts to make every school here a good school.

But after spending two decades tracking large groups of British children from birth to adulthood, the developmental psychologist is convinced that governments are putting their "eggs into the wrong basket" when they focus their efforts on primary and secondary schools.

To him, the race is already half run by the time a child enters formal schooling at Primary 1.

Pre-school education, especially one that is of high quality, is the way to give children the very best start in life.

Professor Melhuish, 65, is one of the five principal investigators of an ongoing 18-year national study examining the benefits of pre-school education in Britain.

The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary (EPPSE) research project launched in 1997 tracked more than 3,000 children from the age of three - the typical age when British children start pre-school - through primary and secondary school and when they went into post-secondary education or employment.

  • Man wearing many hats

  • Professor Edward Melhuish, 65, is a research professor at the University of Oxford and Birkbeck, University of London, and a visiting professor at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

    The developmental psychologist was involved with the National Evaluation of Sure Start - an early intervention programme targeting disadvantaged young children in Britain - the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education project and the Effective Pre-school Provision in Northern Ireland project. He is undertaking studies in the European community, Norway, Britain and Australia.

    His research influenced the 1989 Children Act, the 2005 Children Act, the 2006 Childcare Bill and policies on childcare, early education and parental support in Britain and other countries.

    He has served as an expert witness to several House of Commons select committees and been a scientific adviser to research councils and several governments. He is also a consultant to the European Commission, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and World Health Organisation

The aim was to see if pre-school has a long-term impact on the children's academic and social behavioural development.

Therefore, information on the children, their parents, the home environments and their pre-school settings was collected.

Their developmental progress was monitored until they entered school and later at key time points (ages six, seven, 10, 11 and 14). The latest study released last year investigated the students' academic and social behavioural outcomes at age 16 and their educational, training and employment choices.

The study compared the children's pre-school experience and their General Certificate of Secondary Education results. The GCSE is equivalent to the GCE O Level Examination that students here take at the end of secondary school.

Says Prof Melhuish of the results released in September last year: "The evidence is clear - pre-school education is beneficial. Children who attend pre-school end up with better GCSE results, which means they will go on to earn more money in later life."

The study showed that the benefit of going to any type of pre-school, rather than staying at home, was equivalent to getting seven B grades at GCSE rather than seven C grades.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which did further analysis, the higher grades would translate to an additional £27,000 over their lifetime.

The study also found a link between the amount of time spent in pre-school, and GCSE results.

Children who attended for two or three years, whether full-time or part-time, did better in GCSE English and maths at age 16, according to the research.

Pre-school had a bigger impact on maths than English.

Prof Melhuish explains: "This is probably because, at home, parents do more to build literacy skills in their children, like reading to them. They don't focus so much on building numeracy skills. So the institutional experiences, like in the pre-school or in the school, can affect numeracy outcomes more compared to the home, because the home does so little for the numeracy outcomes."

He goes on to point out another significant finding of the study.

The children who had pre-school education showed a more positive attitude towards education and more pro-social behaviour and self-regulation than the children without any pre-school experience.

"Self-regulation is as important as learning your ABCs and 123s. Kids with good self-regulation can pay attention to classroom activities and ignore distractions."

Professor Melhuish says Singapore is on the right track in giving priority to children from disadvantaged homes in Ministry of Education-run kindergartens.

One-third of the places in the kindergartens are reserved for children from lower- income homes.

  • Key study shows benefits of pre-school education

  • The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary (EPPSE) project started in 1997 and was the first major longitudinal study in Europe to investigate the impact of pre-school provision on a national sample of children.

    The final reports on the study, released last year, looked at the influences on students' academic and social outcomes at age 16.

    The research also estimates some of the economic returns from society's investment in early education.

    Research was conducted through a nationally representative sample of children in 141 pre-school settings, and was drawn in 1997 from five English regions.

    A sample of children, who had no or minimal pre-school experience, were recruited to the study at entry to school, for comparison with the pre-school group.

    EPPSE researchers assessed the children at recruitment to the study to create a profile of each child's intellectual and social-behavioural development.

    They used standardised assessments and reports from the pre-school worker who knew the child best.

    Children were assessed again at entry to school, and the children have been followed up on at ages six, seven, 10 and 11 in primary school, and at ages 14 and 16 in secondary school.

    The children involved are now aged between 19 and 22.

    At GCSE, the benefits of going to pre-school translate into an extra 41 points - the difference between getting, for example, seven grade Bs compared with seven Cs.

    Additional analysis of the EPPSE findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that there are also economic returns.

    The IFS estimated that children who have attended pre-school will be £27,000 (S$56,000) better off over a lifetime.

He refers to the findings on children from disadvantaged homes.

"Pre-school benefited children from disadvantaged homes even more, especially if they attended pre-schools which were of high quality and where there were children from different social backgrounds," he says, before going on to explain why pre-school has a bigger impact on this group.

"It comes down to having little learning opportunity at home. So going to a high-quality pre-school will not only give them a good foundation for numeracy and literacy skills, but it will also teach them the other skills that studies show are increasingly important - the ability to self-regulate and cooperate with other people better."

He adds: "But perhaps just as important, attending a good pre-school teaches children that learning can be enjoyable and that they can be good at it. Their more developed cognitive and social skills, along with this positive attitude towards learning and school, point them in the direction of academic success."

But what makes a high-quality pre-school?

He says although "quality" can refer to a number of factors, research indicates that the most important factor in determining quality of pre-school programmes may be what teachers do, and how they do it, when interacting with children.

Prof Melhuish goes on to make a strong case for governments to provide pre-school education, especially for disadvantaged children, from an earlier age - no later than two.

"There is mounting evidence that early childhood is a crucial period when the brain is most malleable, when interventions are most cost-effective for at-risk kids.

"For example, there is an American study which has pointed out the importance of parent talk from age 0 to 4 and how it is the basis for learning for a child. So it is important to start earlier, not wait till age five," he says.

He says the EPPSE study is unique because it provides valuable evidence on the long-term value of pre-school.

He refers to two other studies, both in the US - the Perry Pre-school Project in Michigan in the 1960s and the Abecedarian experiment conducted in North Carolina in the early 1970s which also tracked children into adulthood.

The Perry Pre-school Project involved providing high-quality pre-school education to a group of three- and four-year-olds living in poverty and assessed to be at high risk of school failure.

The pupils were taught by certified public school teachers with at least a bachelor's degree. The average child-teacher ratio was 6:1 and the curriculum emphasised active learning. These children were tracked for decades after leaving pre-school. Not only did more of them go on to complete high school and enter college, they also had better jobs and earned higher salaries.

According to Prof Melhuish, the two US studies and the British study all put together make a clear case for governments to invest in early childhood education.

He points out that a cost-benefit analysis of the Perry Pre-school Programme found a rate of return of 7 to 10 per cent.

"This is well above the return on any private equity fund," he says, adding: "Investments in early childhood care and education yield high returns all the way to adulthood. The research shows children who have good interactions with their parents, are read to, attend pre-school and in general are stimulated from birth to age five are more likely to stay in school, perform better and lead healthier and more productive lives as adults."

He adds: "Life is unfair. There will always be kids born into households that have much less. Nevertheless, we have a duty to ensure that every child has a chance to reach his fullest potential.

"And this is why we need governments to turn their attention to early years education and care of children.

"Early education, especially one that is of high quality, pays off. It has enduring benefits for children and societies that invest in it.

"So, instead of making every school a good school, the Singapore Government should be aiming to make every pre-school a good pre-school. And it should now aim to be No. 1 in the world in early childhood education."


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