Sixteen years of tracking a large group of British children from the age of three have convinced Oxford University professor Kathy Sylva that pre-school education is critical.
"Research has shown that all children benefit from attending pre-school but those who attend high-quality pre-schools benefit even more," says Professor Sylva, Britain's leading expert on pre- school education.
The Harvard-trained academic's work has questioned several orthodoxies on early-years education and care, including the ideology of unbridled "free play". Her studies have demonstrated the impact of education not only on children's knowledge but on their problem- solving abilities, social skills and disposition to learn.
But she is best-known for leading an ongoing 16-year national study examining the benefits of pre-school education in Britain. Called the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education, it was launched in 1997 and is closely watched by early childhood educators and policymakers as it has tracked more than 3,000 children from the age of three - the typical age when British children start pre-school - and through primary and secondary school.
The latest extension of the study involves tracking the same subjects through their final year of secondary school and into their post- school educational, training and employment choices. Now 16, they will soon sit the General Certificate of Secondary Education, the British equivalent of the O levels.
The findings of the latest study will be out next year. But earlier results - when the children entered primary school at five, and subsequently at the ages of seven, 11 and 14 - showed that attending pre-school clearly benefited them both in their cognitive as well as social development.
More importantly, pre-school attendance continued to pay off. Their scores in reading and mathematics kept improving compared to the scores of those who did not attend pre-school. It is no surprise then that Prof Sylva, whose research has influenced the British government's policies on early childhood education, believes Singapore is on the right track in starting government-run kindergartens to develop best practices and teaching methods.
In an interview, she says that she hopes Singapore's Education Ministry will pull out all the stops to ensure that the facilities and programmes at the five kindergartens opening next year are of high quality and the teachers are well-trained, skilful educators.