“The earlier you go, the more likely you are to pick up kids who may just catch up on their own – they’re just late starters,” states Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford.
At a time when both government and schools are pushing for educational interventions at ever younger ages, and when a huge focus is on benchmarking children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, this comment may prove a reality check about how successful those attempts might be.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast, Bishop explains that there is considerable evidence that things children struggle with at early ages can often resolve simply with the passage of time.
“[For example], we see a lot of two-year-olds who are not using as many words, and parents get quite concerned if everybody else's child is chattering away and their child has only got about 20 words,” she explains. “But we know from studies that do follow up that even without any intervention at all, a lot of those children will catch up.
“So if you go in very early, you're going to be intervening with children who may very well be fine. What we really need is a way to distinguish between those who are going to have long-term problems from those who aren’t, and that is surprisingly hard to do that at the moment.”
Early years interventions
The trouble with just intervening anyway – a kind of catch-everyone-to-target-the-unseen-few approach – is that it creates false positives, she says.
“The difficulty is that when those kids improve [with an intervention], you think it's something you've done better, when, in fact, they were going to get better anyway,” she explains. “So that's just one problem –and a non-obvious one – that can mislead people about how beneficial early intervention is.
“There's a strong case to be made for saying that early intervention is not an unmitigated good – it sort of sounds like common sense, but you really need to look very carefully at who you're intervening with and make sure that you're not just wasting resources by intervening with kids that don't need it.”
It’ not just interventions where an "earlier is better" approach becomes problematic. A desire to push children beyond their developmental capability seems to be creeping into schools, Bishop argues.
“We have four-year-olds coming home from school with spelling tests. I found this astounding, to be honest,” she says. “The thing about four-year-olds is that during that fourth year they can change radically in what they are capable of doing. Because that's a massive period of development: there's more change between a young four-year-old and an old four-year-old than there is between a five-year-old and a six-year-old.
“Also for an awful lot of them, their language skills are not ready for reading and writing, and there's a real concern that you could just be turning them off and making them feel that they can't do it by pushing them far too early.
“I think some understanding of developmental psychology is needed – how one skill builds on another – and if you haven't got the prerequisites in place, you're really just going to risk turning that child off something like reading. Whereas if you check that they do understand how sounds and letters and things go together before you start giving them spelling tests, that makes a lot more sense.”
Teaching younger children
The huge shifts in development between birth and 5 or 6 years-old should not be underestimated in schools, Bishop believes. She states that schools need to have some sense of the fact that a four-year-old brain is very different from, say, a six-year-old brain if they are going to think about how to teach this age range.
They also need to be mindful of this in how they assess children, too, she says.
“With the early years foundation stage assessment, [the government’s] own data was showing that the kids who were coming up not meeting the expected targets, they [were more likely to be the younger pupils]: if you happened to have a birthday that meant that you were a young four-year-old in that class, you were going to do far worse than a child who was six months older. That’s just pure biology; they're just not that advanced because their brains are just not as developed.”
All of this raises the question, of course, around school starting age. If such a huge amount of change is going on, should formal schooling – or at least systematic assessments of learning – start later?
What age should children start school?
“I would love us to actually do some experiments on this,” says Bishop. “I think it would be very hard to do them because people would probably get terribly worried about it, that you might be harming children or something [by starting them later]. But it's not just when they start school, it's what you're doing with them in school, because I think what has happened is that in a quest to meet targets and get children to pass tests…we are making the education experience for four-year-olds considerably more like school than it used to be.
“You will have the odd child who will be ready for it, but there are a lot of children you will potentially turn off reading and writing because they are not ready for it and they should be doing other things, like a fair bit of unstructured activity.”
In the podcast, she goes on to talk about SEND, the role of cognitive psychology and neuroscience in schools and the responsibilities of researchers working in research that could influence education.
You can listen to the podcast on the player above or by typing ‘Tes – the education podcast’ into your Podcast platform (including Spotify)