News analysis

National Day Rally 2017 commentary: Quality pre-schools pay off in big way

Singapore is known around the world for having built a school system that nurtures world beaters.

In the last Programme for International Student Assessment test, 15-year-olds here were ranked No. 1 among students from 72 countries in mathematics, science and reading.

But looking at the powerful body of research on the benefits of quality early childhood care and education, should Singapore be shooting for the top in pre-school education instead?

It is a reachable target, with pre-schools poised to get better and more accessible.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced yesterday that the Ministry of Education (MOE) will run more kindergartens, from 15 now to 50 in the next five years, so that it has the scale to influence the rest of the kindergarten sector and raise standards.

To cater to children younger than that - those from age zero to four, there will be the early-years centres set up in Housing Board estates.

Early education, especially one that is of high quality, yields handsome returns. It has enduring benefits for children and the societies that invest in it. Singapore's goal, then, should be to top the charts in early childhood care and education. Future generations will be happier and more prosperous, if the nation can pull this off.

What was especially heartening was the announcement on the new National Institute of Early Childhood Development, which would be the pre-school equivalent of the existing National Institute of Education for school teachers. This will be set up to train pre-school educators to upgrade the profession and attract good people to the sector.

PM Lee said this was the Government's way of giving children "the best chance to succeed in life".

Indeed, there is a mountain of research showing that the race is already half run by the time a child enters formal schooling at Primary 1.

A large-scale British study - the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary research project launched in 1997 - tracked more than 3,000 children from the age of three through their years of education to employment.

And the evidence was clear - pre-school education is beneficial. Children who attend pre-school end up with better results. The benefit of going to any type of pre-school equated to getting seven B grades in the General Certificate of Secondary Education exams - the equivalent of the GCE O levels - rather than seven C grades. The higher grades, in turn, would translate into better jobs and higher incomes over their lifetime.

Children with pre-school education were also more likely to regulate themselves.

Self-regulation is as important as learning your ABCs, as such children pay more attention in class and can ignore distractions.

Exposure to pre-school will especially benefit children from lower-income homes, for whom one-third of the places in MOE kindergartens have been reserved.

A study by developmental psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley shows that achievement gaps for some children open up as early as the age of three.

The landmark study in the 1990s found that children whose parents were professionals were exposed to far more spoken words - more than 1,500 per hour, on average - than children from homes on welfare. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly eight million words and, by age four, a total gap of 32 million words.

Professor Edward Melhuish, one of the principal investigators of the British study, explained to The Straits Times: "It comes down to having little learning opportunity at home. 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."

Attending a good pre-school teaches children that learning can be enjoyable and that they can be good at it, he pointed out.

But what makes a high-quality pre-school?

Research indicates that the most important factor in determining the quality of pre-school programmes may be what teachers do, and how they do it, when interacting with children.

The Perry Pre-school Project in the United States in the 1960s 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 children were taught by certified public school teachers with at least a bachelor's degree. The average child-teacher ratio was six to one 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.

Meanwhile, the Abecedarian Project in North Carolina - better known as ABC - trained children in self-control and social skills from the time they were just a few months old, stimulated their learning and also provided parental education.

This programme was found to have lasting effects on the child's IQ and the children later did better in school and found more high-skilled jobs.

These studies make a clear case for governments to invest in early childhood education.

Early education, especially one that is of high quality, yields handsome returns. It has enduring benefits for children and the societies that invest in it.

Singapore's goal, then, should be to top the charts in early childhood care and education. Future generations will be happier and more prosperous, if the nation can pull this off.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Quality pre-schools pay off in big way'. Print Edition | Subscribe