The most significant long-term study of three to five-year-olds in Britain has found that one in three display "soft" indicators of SEN at age three but this reduces substantially to one in five by age five.
Advocates of pre-five education believe the evidence from the joint London and Oxford university study of 3,000 children between 1997 and 2003 points conclusively to even more investment to head off difficulties that grow larger and more costly as pupils move through formal schooling.
Most SEN spending is in the school sector and any transfer to pre-school would represent a major policy switch. The findings assume added importance with the Scottish Parliament now considering a draft bill on additional support for learning that will back early intervention - but mainly in the school sector.
Brenda Taggart of the Institute of Education at London University told an international conference in Glasgow last week (page four) that pre-school education was "a very effective intervention" for children at risk. They were often born under weight and came from large families in lower socio-economic groups. Boys and ethnic minority groups were over-represented.
The evidence about the value of pre-school education for this particular group of pupils follows the revelation that local authority nursery schools continue to do better than voluntary groups and private nurseries.
Children do well in all pre-school settings, especially compared with those who stay at home, but council nurseries with highly qualified and better trained and paid staff are the most effective for all social classes.
Integrated centres, which include day care and nurseries, and nursery schools led by trained teachers do best.
They are most effective in improving behaviour and dealing with at-risk groups. They clearly show that disadvantage is combated by early intervention strategies, a message that has already been brought home to ministers.
Initial findings were released earlier this year but fuller details were only disclosed at last week's European Early Childhood Education Research Association conference at Strathclyde University.
Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford, told the conference that findings from the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education Project (EPPE) matched those around the world. "Different studies in different countries point in the same direction," she said.
Scotland was asked to take part in 1996 but declined.
Professor Sylva said that all of the 141 pre-school settings in the study brought benefits. In contrast, children with no pre-five experience displayed poorer attainment, social skills and concentration.
"Good quality is not found in equal proportion in all settings. There is much more good quality in the education-maintained sector where children are taught by trained teachers. It's not a level playing field," she said.
Professor Sylva added: "Those settings that have more effect have better paid staff, appraisal, people with training in science who go to maths workshops and have links with the special educational needs co-ordinator and educational psychologists. Disadvantaged children in particular benefit from high quality."
Children's progress increased commensurately with the level of qualifications of staff. Nursery schools and integrated centres run by local authorities were most effective in reducing anti-social behaviour and breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
"The biggest impact on children's behaviour, especially social behaviour, is having a trained teacher and a higher level of trained teacher. Good quality does not come cheap," Professor Sylva said.
The more terms children spent in pre-school, the higher the return.
Curiously, children who attend pre-school part-time do just as well as those who are full-time. Toddlers under the age of two who spend more than 25 hours a week in day care were more at risk of anti-social behaviour, which may be related to quality of provision, Professor Sylva said.
Children were sensitive to quality regardless of their parents' background - "even if your barrister parents read to you every day".
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