Maureen O'Connor reports on a study linking the progress of five infant pupils to their social circumstances
Very young children decide to co-operate, resist or opt out in class for all sorts of complex reasons. Unless that is taken into account, some will learn very little, however prescriptive the curriculum or draconian the assessment.
Professor Andrew Pollard of the University of the West of England, Bristol, has reached this conclusion after conducting an in-depth study of five children as they moved through their infant years.
The national curriculum may have been necessary to raise standards, he says, but schools must also consider the needs of children as learners.
His new study, The Social World of Children's Learning, is part of a growing body of evidence on how social and family factors can influence learning from a very early age.
The five pupils that Pollard studied were relatively privileged children from comfortable homes in a pleasant suburb. All had parents who were supportive and ambitious for them, and who understood the importance of their role in the education process. They had books and educational visits, clubs and sports, and unstinting encouragement.
Yet given their advantages, it is surprising to discover what difficulties some of them faced during the first years of schooling, difficulties rooted in their own personalities and in their relationships at home and at school.
Ironically, the most successful child was a rare working-class girl in a mainly middle-class school. But she was the caretaker's daughter, who saw the place as "my dad's school". Her mother was a cleaner and dinner-helper, and the child spent hours after school in the building she regarded with proprietorial attachment. Self-confident, knowledgeable, helpful and academically hardworking and able, Sally's school and social worlds were in unique harmony. She had, in many ways, a flying start and took full advantage of it.
Sally's closest rival in attainment was Mary, who had two older brothers, and whose early strategy within the family was to be a "good girl" in contrast to the "naughty little boys". She adopted the same strategy at school, only slowly overcoming her reluctance to extend herself in case she got things "wrong". The fact that Sally surged ahead in reading - although Mary tended to out-perform her in maths - tended to increase her early lack of confidence. It took an exceptionally sympathetic Year 2 teacher to help her to come close to fulfilling her potential.
James, however, from a much more privileged background, found school very difficult. The younger of two sons of an ambitious, rather traditional middle-class family, he suffered because his mother, a former primary teacher, was ill for much of his infancy. The home-school relationship was neither warm nor close, and after three years his teachers regarded him as anxious and insecure, while he had perfected techniques for doing as little work as possible. At the age of seven, the family switched him to a private school where he flourished.
Hazel was another child who at an astonishingly early age began to develop strategies for avoiding work she did not want to do - in her case maths. Hazel was an artistically gifted child, whose talents were greatly appreciated by her family and teachers.
But Hazel was also stubborn, and developed a flair for avoiding school activities which did not interest her, either by playing the fool or retreating into a world of her own. She had to be firmly persuaded to do anything except draw and create her own fantasy worlds. Over time, she discovered that reading "could be like watching a video in your head" and that writing could enhance her imaginative life.
Daniel, the youngest of five children, also had some difficulties settling into the reception class. His resentments became clear to Pollard in an interview in which Daniel confessed to getting "tummy ache" in the maths corner. Why?
Daniel: "Because I don't like it."
Pollard: "I wonder why you don't like it? Is it because the teacher tells you you must do it?" Daniel: "Yes ... I get fed up with her because she tells me other things what's very nasty."
Pollard: "What are these nasty things she tells you?" Daniel: "'Get on with it'."
Most infants' teachers are well aware of their children's difficulties and idiosyncrasies. In fact, one of the illuminations of Pollard's research is the extent to which the teachers and families he studied were in close communication about the children's progress or lack of it.
But the case studies also reveal the worrying extent to which most of these children responded negatively to one particular teacher. The speed at which even six-year-olds, made uneasy by an unpredictable and highly-stressed teacher, can adopt avoidance strategies is deeply depressing.
Nevertheless, Pollard emphasises that children's first influence is always the family. It helps to determine how children react to the challenges of meeting other children and adults, and the demands of school. Parent-teacher partnerships are absolutely essential if children are to learn effectively in school, he concludes. Classes in parenting, and more pre-school education should also be high priorities.
The Social World of Children's Learning, case studies of pupils from four to seven, by Andrew Pollard with Ann Filer, published by Cassell, price Pounds 45 hardback, Pounds 15.99 paperback.