Young ones need kindness, a cuddle and more resources

5th April 2013 at 01:00
The nursery and pre-school education years are crucial, which is why they deserve even greater attention

I recently did something unusual: I agreed with the educational consensus, in this case that today's priority should be nursery and pre-school education. I received an unexpected response from a friend who spent her entire working life in nurseries.

"These children are 3 and 4: the emphasis on skills has gone too far. No longer do they get story times or nursery rhymes. I despair. Let them be children as long as they can. I am so proud to see some of my nursery children get on so well in life. What we gave them was love, kindness and a cuddle. That's not how it is today with nurseries too busy concentrating on how many sides a triangle has."

She has a point. The fun has left more than nursery schooling. The idea that children learn through play seems to have been jettisoned in the stampede for attainment. In fact, the reason I'd prioritise nursery education is our shared priorities: stories and nursery rhymes and love and kindness. We all need more of these, especially our youngest children.

In a world where work dominates adults' lives, there often isn't enough time in the day for the emotional gifts children require to flourish and develop into confident, healthy young people. That's a deficit across the social class divide.

There is another deficit, however: it overwhelmingly marks the children of our poorest citizens, and that is language development. At age 5, children with a graduate parent have a vocabulary about 18 months ahead of those with unqualified parents (Growing Up in Scotland survey).

We know that at age 3 the children of the most affluent 20 per cent of the population are 0.27 of a standard deviation above the national average in language skills, while the children of the poorest 20 per cent are 0.5 of a standard deviation below the national average, a difference of 0.77. That difference remains almost unchanged at 0.73 at age 5.

It is precisely nursery rhymes, story times, games and talk which our two- to four-year-olds need. Those who require it most urgently are many of the children in the poorest sector of the population.

As a secondary head, I saw many bright but frustrated working-class youngsters, only too aware of their own innate capacities but also of their lack of tools to develop them. Of course, teachers have a job to inspire and challenge their charges to enhance vocabulary and language skills, but the base is laid at ages 2 to 5. In the battle for resources, our nurseries should be moved to the head of the queue.

Alex Wood, former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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