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.
Given the results of her study, she says it is also good that children from poor homes will get priority at the new kindergartens.
One-third of the places will go to children from disadvantaged homes.
"The study showed that going to pre-school benefited all children but it 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," she says.
"When we assessed the children at age three, one in three children was 'at risk' of developing learning difficulties at the start of pre- school. However, this fell to one in five by the time they started primary school." Prof Sylva was in Singapore in 1990 as keynote speaker at the first kindergarten conference held here. Since then, she has made several more visits and admires Singapore for consistently performing well in international benchmarking tests.
One of the aims of the British study was to see if different types of pre-school affected the development of children differently.
Prof Sylva notes that one of the reasons why the study's findings are trusted by members of the academic community and policymakers is that it took into account the contribution of background factors such as birth weight, gender, and parental qualifications and occupations to the child's development.
"Only by taking into account background influences can fair comparison be made across settings," she explains, noting that the researchers spent many hours assessing each child in the study. The 3,000 children attended 141 centres ranging from private nurseries to local authority-run pre- schools, play groups and integrated childcare and pre-schools. A small group who did not attend pre- school were also included in the study.
Among the findings: After two years of age, the earlier the children started pre-school, the better was their intellectual development. Also, attending pre-school full time led to no better gains than attending part time. But there were significant differences among the type of pre-schools, and the quality was important.
Although the study's team found good pre-schools in different settings, integrated centres combining pre-school education and childcare with a higher proportion of trained graduate teachers had higher-quality scores. Says Prof Sylva: "There is a need to provide proper education and training for early childhood educators.
The results showed that if they were taught by a university-trained pre-school teacher, the children performed better academically."
Another key finding is that the home learning environment - what parents did to help their children learn - is more important for all children's intellectual and social development than their parents' jobs, education or income.
"What this means is that what parents do is more important than who parents are," she says. Poor parents with few qualifications can improve their children's progress and give them a better start at school by engaging them in activities at home.
"Reading storybooks, singing songs, drawing, painting and taking them to the library, all have a positive effect on their development," says Prof Sylva.
Yet another significant finding was that those who began pre-school at the age of three went on to do better than those who started a year later. An earlier start led not only to better intellectual development but also improved concentration, independence and sociability.
This finding led to the British government providing free pre- school for all children from the age of three. Given all that she has found out, Prof Sylva is all for the Singapore Government's bigger involvement in the pre-school sector.
"The evidence is clear. Pre-school education is crucial to the cognitive and social development of a child," she says. "Any country that wants to develop its children to their fullest potential must ensure that there is access to good-quality and affordable pre-school education."
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