EUROPE'S biggest study of pre-school children is providing valuable insights into how infants from disadvantaged backgrounds can be given a better start in life.
Researchershave identified several ways in which parents from poorer homes can accelerate their children's intellectual and social development.
The six-year study - analysing the daily lives of 3,000 English pre-school children from all social backgrounds - is being funded by the Department for Education and Employment. Its interim findings are being considered by politicians and officials involved in early-years education and the
Surestart pre-school programme to tackle social exclusion.
The researchers told the BERA conference that parents who draw their child's attention to sounds and letters help to develop not only their literacy but their early number skills.
Professor Edward Melhuish, of Cardiff University, a contributor to the study, said: "The quality of the home educational environment is one of the most powerful predictors of cognitive and social development. It is as important as social class or the parents' level of education.
"Some of the parents from poorer backgrounds that we interviewed were helping their children more in this respect than wealthier and better educated parents were. The boost they gave their children was equivalent to several months' developmental progress.
"Telling families about the kind of activities they could get involved in with their children would therefore be a very positive step for Surestart to take."
The researchers on the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education project have been monitoring 2,800children from 141 pre-school centres and more than 200 who have not attended a centre. The project has three years to run but has produced several reports - one of which was recently considered by the Commons education select committee.
The research has confirmed that pre-school experience can help to combat educational disadvantage and has a marked effect on literacy. But, predictably, it found that the quality of education and care in pre-school centres varies hugely.
Researchers gave highest praise to nursery schools and classes, judged "good to excellent". Social services day-care centres were rated as "adequate to good" and private day nurseries "minimal to adequate". Playgroups got the lowest rating although they could offer good chances for social interaction.
Preliminary data from Northern Ireland indicates that some playgroups can also provide valuable linguistic experiences.
Other key findings are that:
children with young mothers are more likely to be disruptive;
infants who have spent most time in pre-school centres are most likely to be socially competent and have higher cognitive development scores, but be more disruptive;
youngsters with more siblings are more socially competent. But where there are three or more siblings there is more chance of disruptive behaviour and lower cognitive development scores.
"Socialbehavioural and cognitive development at 3-4 years in relation to family background", by Edward Melhuish, Kathy Sylva (Oxford University), and Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Brenda Taggart (Institute of Education, London University). Contact: email@example.com