A better start

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Any educators worth their salt will warm to the proposition that pre-school education and better parenting can be the saving of a disadvantaged child; and that providing a better start in life is essential to halt the slide into self-destructive behaviour manifest in too many young people - particularly young men.

The findings of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology (page 3) that those most vulnerable are not difficult to spot early in life will come as little surprise to those who teach such children. But the leap from such truisms to the conclusion that these worrying social trends would be reversed if only more parent education and nursery schooling were provided should be treated with some caution.

It is true that other researchers have also confirmed the benefits of early intervention; that differences between children who did and did not receive pre-school education could be detected late into their lives. Those receiving a good start generally go on to achieve better at school and in employment and are less likely to commit crime, take drugs or otherwise misbehave or provide expensive drains on social spending.

The clearest evidence on this - in fact the only longitudinal evidence on such a scale - comes from the American HighScope research quoted by Professor Farrington, of the Cambridge Institute. This focused on a group of disadvantaged youngsters from a racially-mixed inner city area, and essential features of the programme were both the highly-structured "plan, do and review" nursery education offered, and the heavy involvement of parents. Both components were considered essential to the positive benefits still showing up in adult life. The pilot programmes on the same lines now being run in this country by the Home Office are a welcome experiment. But they are only funded for three years, so it is hard to see how the report due later this year can offer any long-term conclusions.

Meanwhile it is not so clear whether the less dramatic advantages of pre-schooling in general are the result of the quality of programme offered or because the children involved came from families, regardless of social class, able and willing to find that early education. So it may not follow that providing universal nursery education - or even targeting it on those thought most in need - will in itself have the desired effect on the most vulnerable.

So long as it remains voluntary, there is no guarantee that those who need it most will take it up; indeed, for some the order and routine necessary to get their child to school may represent more of a challenge than an opportunity.

This is not an argument against early intervention but a recognition that a simple offer may not be enough. It must be an offer they cannot refuse, not just an earlier opportunity to fail because inappropriate curriculum expectations are handed down rather than those which start where these children and their parents are. This may seem to argue for special measures targeted on reluctant or disorganised parents from such backgrounds as feature in the Cambridge researcher's taxonomy of the criminal classes, though again caution is needed. Services which provide family support to all would be preferable to ghettos offering more in the way of social stigma than shared models of reasonable behaviour.

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