Children should start education earlier, not later: quality preschool changes poor children’s lives

In Tim Harford’s excellent The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, his new book which can be summarised as “macroeconomics for dummies”, he discusses poverty, and how national governments can try to reduce it. One story he tells is of the “Perry Preschool Project“.

“Deprivation starts very early in life,” he says, “so cash hand-outs will not necessarily provide a springboard to self-sufficiency.” Simply giving money to poor people may not be an effective way to help them out of poverty. But, he says, “there is a growing body of high-quality evidence based on randomised trials that providing early-years education to poor children is an extremely sensible thing to do”.

The Perry programme was one such trial. Between 1962 and 1967, 123 poor children, aged three and four, were randomly assigned to two groups: one group received high-quality preschool education, and the other did not. The trial then followed those two groups of children throughout their lives. The results were startling. I’ve taken the following graphs from the Perry site – I hope they don’t mind:

In short, a quality preschool education led to a dramatic reduction in arrests, a dramatic increase in educational and earning achievements, higher IQ in childhood, and a vast, vast saving to the public exchequer. Getting poor kids into good-quality education early – from the age of three or four – seems to transform their life chances, and it pays for itself many times over.

A similar study was carried out in the 1970s in Carolina, the Abecedarian Project, and found similar results, as did other trials, including the Effective Provision of Preschool Education in the UK (PDF). Early education, it seems, changes the lives of poor children, for the better.

Which is why it’s interesting to read that, in a letter to this newspaper, a group of academics has called for education in Britain to start later, at around age seven.

I’d love to say that they’re talking complete nonsense and these dangerous communists should be kept away from our children, and so on, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that. They do call for “several years of high-quality nursery education” first, although they don’t specify when that would start, so perhaps they’re completely on board with the Perry findings.

And the academics do call for a move away from academic learning for very young children and towards “learning through play”. They claim that trying to get children to study for tests and targets at a young age damages their future learning. It seems that they might be right about that, if this study of preschool models in Washington, DC, is accurate: it found that “by the end of their sixth year in school, children whose preschool experiences had been academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes”. It may well be that Michael Gove’s education reforms, if they are intended to make children learn the Three Rs at preschool rather than letting them run around outside and hit each other with toys, are counterproductive.

But the key point seems to be: we shouldn’t be talking about getting children in school later – we should talk about getting them in school, or rather preschool, earlier. If the research is to be believed, it is one of the most cost-effective ways of changing the course of deprived children’s lives. The academics are right in their letter that we need to “fundamentally rethink our early years policies”. First, start by getting poor children in preschools for those early years.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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