Getting the right start on the wrong side of the tracks

6th March 2015 at 00:00
Social problems don't have to mean bad behaviour, experts say

A landmark study of more than 10,000 children about to start primary school has found that coming from some of the poorest parts of Scotland does not necessarily lead to poorer behaviour - and that pupils from affluent areas often perform worse than expected.

The Glasgow-based research, believed to be the first study in the world to attempt to detail the strengths and difficulties of preschool children across a whole city, suggests that there may be influences on children's behaviour that can counter social problems.

The report appears to support attempts in recent years to shift the focus of education in Scotland on to the early years, after previous studies found that children from poor backgrounds often lagged behind their peers even before they started primary school.

Preschool staff in the Glasgow study were asked to complete questionnaires for all children about to start P1, resulting in data for 10,409 children, most aged between four and a half and five and a half. This equates to more than 50 per cent of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 cohorts.

The research, conducted by the universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, as well as Glasgow City Council, found that children in some very deprived areas were doing better than would be expected given their demographics. Likewise, those in more affluent areas had more difficulties than expected.

In Greater Govan, for example, children were doing "considerably better" than anticipated, despite 35.4 per cent of them living in poverty.

But in the north-east of the city, another deprived area, results were worse. According to the academics, this could be the result of pockets of violent crime or children living in households classed as "vulnerable".

The researchers, led by the University of Glasgow's Louise Marryat, speculate that strong family networks and a relatively stable population could be reasons for the discrepancies. They now want to explore other potentially positive factors, such as access to play areas, libraries, community centres and food shops, as well as harmful influences including crime, housing, population density and living close to pubs and off-licences.

The project, which was funded by the Scottish government, underlines the importance of getting children on the right road as soon as possible, with social, emotional and behavioural problems at an early age having "far-reaching effects" on future school performance and job prospects.

Researcher Michele McClung, who works as education services manager for policy and research at Glasgow City Council, said the study offered reassurance to teachers and other education staff that they could make a difference even with children who displayed severe behavioural problems. "Early intervention is the most important thing," she said.

Glasgow was striving to be a "nurturing city", Dr McClung added, meaning that all staff should be aware of ways they could help children beyond simply concentrating on educational performance.

Former primary headteacher Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it, said children would benefit from the school starting age in Scotland being raised and the introduction of a "proper kindergarten system for all".

"It would make a huge difference," she said. "Those from the least advantaged homes would benefit most, but really, all children would benefit."

Greg Dempster, general secretary of school leaders' body AHDS, said that the research "chimed entirely" with longitudinal studies in England, which showed that a high-quality preschool experience led to better behaviour later.

TESS recently revealed, however, the extent of the pressure on preschool education in Scotland ("High nursery numbers tell a cautionary tale", 23 January).

Jennifer Barnes, senior professional officer for Voice Scotland, many of whose members come from the preschool sector, said the union was "very concerned to see at a local level significant service reduction in key preschool strategies in this time of financial austerity".

She added: "The researchers' intention to further explore support facilities in place for children and their carers as a next step confirms just how important it is for services such as early years to be adequately funded to meet the needs of children."

The Scottish government's most high-profile policy in this area has been providing all three- and four-year-olds with free childcare. This was recently increased from 475 hours a year to 600 hours.

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