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

'Make every pre-school a good pre-school'
Prof Melhuish wants governments to provide pre-school education, especially for disadvantaged children, from an earlier age – no later than two.

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.

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.

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 co-operate 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."

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