"YOUNG children who have had to cope with the risks and vagaries of the streets ... often develop powerful intellectual capacities to predict, hypothesize and analyse the contingencies, often dangerous ones, they face."
Lilian Katz, one of America's foremost early-childhood experts, was making the point that all children come to school with lively minds. A less articulate child, without "middle-class" advantages, may not have been read to, but may well have learned to read other people.
That said, good nursery education can make a big difference. But what is good? Professor Katz told last week's National Primary Trust international conference, My future, Our World, in Telford, that children need sustained interactions with significant adults, and children as well. The easiest example is a conversation about something that is meaningful to a child, but it needn't be verbal. Research shows that the brain seeks patterns, and this type of interaction helps the brain develop. It doesn't have to be fun, she added. "Adults over-estimate the importance of fun and underestimate children's enjoyment of doing hard work and solving problems".
Professor Katz also stressed the value of "intellectual goals", which entail hypotheses, reflection, analysis, and engagement over time, compared with "academic goals", which she described as small disembedded tasks.
Children who attend more formal, "academic", pre-schools tend to do better at tests, but three or four years later, the children who had an intellectual curriculum were ahead.
Children under eight, she said, were notoriously bad at taking tests, so the younger the child, the more unreliable the test result. The earlier a child is labelled, the more likely it is to be a mislabelling.
Instead of outcomes, we should be talking about the standards of experiences children should have, she said. These should include:
* being intellectually engaged and challenged;
* applying their developing skills in purposeful ways;
* taking initiative, responsibility and making choices;
* sustained involvement in investigations of worthwhile topics;
* overcoming obstacles and setbacks;
* helping others to find out about and understand things;
* making suggestions to others;
* confidence in their own intellectual powers and
* feelings of belonging to a community in the class and school.