Baroness Blackstone, the new higher education minister, promised "excellence for everyone at all ages" during last week's lifelong learning campaign. But most of the debate has focused on adult education, the world of work and the need for continual retraining. We believe the focus should be shifted to the other end of compulsory education.
The key to successful life-long learning lies in strengthening children's motivation in the early years. Yet there has been little developmental work or research in this country on how practitioners can recognise and foster what Sir Christopher Ball's 1994 Start Right report dubbed the "super skills" - positive attitudes and an interest in learning - or how they might assess them.
Drawing on research from around the world, we would argue that early experiences - crucially influenced by parents and teachers - shape the pattern of progress, achievement and fulfilment throughout an individual's life.
Start Right highlighted the importance of young children being eager to learn and master skills; developing a "can-do" attitude and good social skills; being involved; and having a sense of belonging and emotional well-being.
Sir Christopher Ball wrote: "Modern educational research is on the threshold of a revolution. The findings of brain science, for example, or the theory of multiple intelligence, or the idea of different styles of learning or the recognition that people can learn to learn faster, are all pointing the way towards a new and powerful theory of learning which will be able to satisfy the three tests of explanation, prediction and aspiration.
"Central to the new theory will be a clearer understanding of learning development, and the sequence whereby people progress from infancy to become mature learners. In the (recent) past the professionalism of teachers has often been thought to reside in mastering the subject or discipline. But these are merely the tokens of learning. The art of learning (learning how to learn) is also concerned with the types, or 'super skills' and attitudes, of learning - of which motivation, socialisation and confidence are the most important. These are the fruits of successful early learning."
If we are to create the society of lifelong learners that management guru Charles Handy believes will be needed for the next century, it is essential that we succeed in incorporating these ideas into early years practice. They need translating into accessible and meaningful strategies. They also have to build upon the work going on today.
It is against this background that the title of our new project, Accounting Early for Life Long Learning (AcE), was chosen. The word "accounting" has three meanings: "explanation and causation"; "numerical audit"; and "responsibilities and conduct". Thus the title encapsulat es the three key research issues of our project: defining the early characterist ics of lifelong learners; designing assessment instruments to measure them; and developing practice to support them.
Recent government policy has focused on establishing outcome measures based mainly on the acquisition of skills and knowledge in prescribed academic areas. This has led to a burgeoning of interest in baseline assessment, mostly covering language, maths and personal and social development. But very few schemes have any reference to attitudes, dispositions or emotional well-being. We feel that this is a major omission and one which we aim to address. The AcE Project recognises the importance of
cognitively focused outcomes, but intends to enhance practitioners' ability to support and assess other areas of children's achievement, which are also important to long-term success. These will include dispositions to learning; respect for self; respect for others; and emotional well-being.
In his popular book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman claims: "School success is not predicted by a child's fund of facts or a precocious ability to read so much as by emotional and social measures; being self assured and interested; knowing what kind of behaviour is expected and how to rein in impulse to misbehave, being able to wait, to follow directions, and to turn to adults and peers for help; expressing needs whilst getting along with other children. "
The AcE Project will be targeted at three to six-year-olds because there is evidence to show that this is the critically important age for establishing learning attitudes. Gender and race studies show that lifelong attitudes are set early. Attitudes to "self as a learner" follow the same pattern. Goleman suggests there is a biologically determined period when it is crucial to establish certain semi-permanent attitudes about learning. The stronger these are embedded, the greater their resilience to inevitable periods of poor stimulation, and the more likely that they will persist. We live in an audited society where there is a danger that only that which is measurable is seen as significant. We need to ensure that what we are measuring is indeed significant.
Undoubtedly, intrinsic motivation is crucial to a child's learning. When encouraged and rewarded, the innate drive to explore becomes established, and children develop a desire for lifelong learning.
Professor Christine Pascal and Dr Tony Bertram are directors of the Centre for Research in Early Childhood at Worcester College of Higher Education