Preschool learning holds the key to children's success in later life

A vast 3-11 research project involving 3,000 children underpins the Government's huge expansion of early education

Helen Ward

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Nothing in life is certain apart from death, taxes . and the link between your mother's educational achievement and yours.

This parental link has long been one of the central pillars of educational research.

But last week, a vast government-supported research project reported that the learning activities of toddlers with mothers from all social classes had a similar effect - degree or not.

The Effective Preschool and Primary Education 3-11 project also found that children who went to preschool did better than those who did not - and that the quality of those preschools mattered.

This major research exercise underpins the Government's huge expansion of early education. The team has followed the same 3,000 children and discovered that both these effects - the quality of the early home learning environment and attending a high quality preschool - have a significant impact on children's English and maths results at 11.

Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford, of the Institute of Education at London University and one of the five principal investigators, said: "Normally every study shows a mother's educational level is one of the biggest predictors on children's achievement. Having a degree has the highest impact.

"We have found that by age 11, the effect of early learning at home is similar to this."

In one sense, the message is simple: the better the home learning environment, preschool and primary school, the better results they will get. But complications come when you start asking what is "better", how much difference each factor makes and how they interact.

The home learning environment was measured by rating how often parents carried out seven activities with their children: being read to; going to the library; playing with numbers; painting and drawing; being taught letters; being taught numbers; and singing songs.

The researchers also observed what happened as the children got older, and they reached two important conclusions. One was that the home learning environment was not very strongly linked to mothers' qualifications or with social class: there were disadvantaged homes that did lots of these activities and wealthy homes that were poor at them. They also found that the home learning environment did not have anything like as noticeable an impact on older children: it was what happened at and before the age of three that mattered.

Gender is also a factor that has a simple and well-known effect, but which becomes complicated as it is unpicked.

At age five, girls do better at reading than boys simply because they are girls. But by age 10, boys have mostly caught up, and there are many other factors than gender, such as the home learning environment, that have a greater influence. But that is not the end of the story because the early home learning environment is linked to gender.

The study found that boys were more than twice as likely to have a poor home learning environment than girls.

Attending high quality preschool is one way to close such gaps. Such early education is particularly good for boys, children with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professor Siraj-Blatchford said: "Our finding was that preschool does matter. There have been lots of studies in the past that found by the age of eight the effect of preschool had washed out.

"Our model finds that the effect of low-quality preschool does almost wash out completely, but medium and high-quality preschool still have an impact."

The team, based at Oxford, Nottingham and London universities, found that at primary schools things such as having a plenary session were important, although it is not clear whether this was because it gave children a chance to partake in the lesson or whether it was a proxy for a more effective school.

Among the most interesting findings was that the children who enjoyed primary schools most were not those who did best.

Children's enjoyment of school related to how well they behaved, but did not necessarily correlate with their academic achievement.

Enjoyment, however, did seem to be linked to children's perception that their headteacher was interested in children and made sure everyone behaved.

The factor which seemed to have more effect on children's progress both academically and socially was not enjoyment, but feeling safe at school and supported by staff.

The project, which is now following the children through to age 14, has discovered some critical messages.

Working with parents before children start at school can have huge payoffs; it is not preschool education per se but preschool education that is of a high quality that is important.

The research also rams home the conclusion that primary schools are incredibly powerful in helping children. Professor Siraj-Blatchford said: "Primary schools can turn around the educational trajectory of children."

There maybe indeed be precious few certainties in life, but knowing that your destiny is not set out at birth is an uncertainty worth having.


What parents do is more important than who they are, when it comes to children's education.

A new report from the Department for Children, Schools and Families has drawn together the latest evidence on the impact of parents who get involved with supporting their children at home.

It reveals that parental involvement has a significant effect throughout a child's school life; and this is clear even taking into account background factors such as class and family size.

The Effective PreSchool and Primary Education 3-11 project research, which was published last week, has found a positive impact from activities such as playing with letters and numbers, emphasising the alphabet, reading with the child, teaching songs and nursery rhymes, painting and drawing and visiting the library.

The research, which is funded by the DCSF and based at Oxford, London and Nottingham universities, also found parents are more likely to read and teach nursery rhymes to girls than to boys, which may account for some of the gender gap.

Another study, by Kathryn Duckworth at London University's Institute of Education, found parental behaviour has more impact than school quality on pupils' attainment at key stage 2.

Fathers had a critical role, with research showing that their interest and involvement leads to better outcomes for both sons and daughters.

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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