Sending children to nursery early gives them a year's head start at primary school

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Children who start nursery school by the age of two are up to a year ahead in maths and English when they begin full-time schooling, a major research project, published yesterday, shows.

Children who start nursery school by the age of two are up to a year ahead in maths and English when they begin full-time schooling, a major research project, published yesterday, shows.

The study, compiled by the University of London, showed that those who spent three years or more in nursery education were 10 to 12 months ahead on average, compared with youngsters kept at home by parents until they started compulsory schooling at five. It also showed that the longer the time spent in nursery education the better the performance at school - so children who started nursery education at three were likely to be only four to six months ahead instead of 10 to 12.

The only drawback to an early start was that youngsters sent to day nurseries before the age of two were more likely to show signs of antisocial behaviour towards their teacher - 7.1 per cent of the cohort compared with 6.8 per cent of those who stayed at home. However, they were more sociable with their classmates.

The findings, the first time research has been conducted on the impact of pre-school education in the UK, also show those who have had pre-school education do better in reading, writing and maths tests for seven-year-olds. Again, those who have been at pre-school the longest - the two-year-olds - are further ahead, the research, commissioned by the Department for Education, found.

In reading, children of unskilled or semi-skilled workers - on average - were likely to fail to reach the level expected of a seven-year-old. They reached a level of 1.9 compared with the benchmark of two. If they had been at nursery school, they scored 2.2 on average.

Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, said of the findings: "There has been a lot of concern expressed by parents, raised by research, as to whether it is damaging to have your children in pre-school.

"I think, I hope, this research today gives comfort to parents who are always worrying about whether they are doing their best for their children and how to balance work responsibilities with care at home.

"Pre-school is, on the whole, a really good thing. It is not a substitute for good quality parenting in the home but certainly it does not have the damaging consequences that have been suggested by some commentators and researchers based on questionable evidence."

Kathy Silva, from Oxford University, a member of the research team, said the report showed early education was "not just turning youngsters into skill and drill monsters. They really are more sociable and helpful."

The research, on 2,800 children in pre-school environments and 300 who stayed at home, concluded it was the quality rather than the quantity of pre-school education that mattered. Nurseries with qualified teachers did better than those who relied on care staff. In addition, children who spent five half-days a week at nursery did just as well as those who went full time.

"An early start at pre-school (between two and three years) was linked with better intellectual attainment and being more sociable with other children," the report added. "There was no evidence, though, that full-day attendance led to better development than half-day attendance."

The research comes on the eve of a government strategy document for the early years which will call for schools to offer round-the-clock child-care from 8am until 6pm for the children of working parents.

It warned it was still important for parents to spend time teaching children to read, write and add up, revealing that parents who taught their children nursery rhymes were likely to have the brightest youngsters.

"The quality of the home learning environment is more important for intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income," the report concluded. "What parents do is more important than who parents are."

It also showed that parents were likely to spend more time singing and playing with girls than boys. Researchers claimed this could be because they were more receptive and that boys had less of a concentration span. Eighty per cent of children with antisocial habits were boys. Children were also more likely to misbehave if left with child-minders for long periods.


YES: Anna Urban & Charlotte, 3

Anna and David Urban believe that Charlotte's social skills have improved while at nursery.

"Charlotte is learning to play, share and be friendly. Now she finds it very easy to socialise with other children," said Ms Urban, 36. She and her husband, a businessman, from Radlett, Hertfordshire, believe the little things that children learn at nursery, like putting coats on pegs, encourage independence. "It seems like basic stuff to you and me," Ms Urban said, "but it allows them to become independent and develop their personalities."

NO: Nicole Rosenberg & Sarah, 3

Nicole Rosenberg, a trained teacher, is educating Sarah, her daughter, at home so that she can benefit from a calm learning environment - and her mother's experience.

"It is not the ideal for every mum to be with their child 24 hours a day - nurseries are very helpful," said Ms Rosenberg, 34. "But at nursery you can't choose what your child will pick up."

Ms Rosenberg and her partner, Warwick Bailey, 43, from Cambridge, plan to teach Sarah at home until she is at least seven. "Research does show that age zero to six is the most critical time," she said.