The Big Question: Is early-years education the best way to prepare children for school?

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Why are we asking this now?

A report presented to the European Association for Learning and Instruction yesterday suggested that the Government's £21bn drive to improve early-years education and childcare facilities had yet to make any real impact in improving children's development before entering primary school.

Who is saying this - and what is the evidence?

The report comes from Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre as a result of measuring the cognitive development of 35,000 children on entry into primary school between 2001 and 2006. It said the children were no better at being able to count or recognise letters, shapes and rhymes now than youngsters of the same age six years ago.

What are theimplications of the findings?

For the Government, should the findings remain unchallenged, their implications would be immense. Labour – and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in particular – have invested much credibility in their early-years initiative. In successive budget speeches, Mr Brown has made great play of extending early-years education to children from the age of two in some of the most deprived areas of the country. This follows research which showed that youngsters were already falling behind their peers from more affluent families in cognitive development even at such an early age.

The Government is committed to setting up a national network of Sure Start centres – offering a wide range of children's services to the under-fives.

So is this investment a waste of time?

You cannot draw that conclusion from yesterday's report. Dr Christine Merrell, the author of the research, made it clear that it might still be too early to measure the effects of the Government's programme since it had only been phased in over the past few years. However, she conceded that one would have expected to see some outcome by now. Maxine Hill, policy and research manager at the Daycare Trust, urged caution over the results, indicating that the research may point to problems in ensuring that children from the poorest homes (who might be thought to benefit most) were still not accessing the early years education and care they were entitled to. "Programmes like Sure Start were intended as a ladder of opportunity for disadvantaged children," she said. "Only when these children are being reached, and we know many of them are not, will the gap in educational attainment between middle-class children and their poorer contemporaries start to close."

So what should parents do?

It might be worth considering earlier research in conjunction with that published by Durham University yesterday. For instance, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project, which has carried out research for the Government, found that pre-school children with a history of three years of quality pre-school provision – who started in nursery at aged two or even younger – were up to a year ahead of their contemporaries in educational attainment at the start of primary schooling. It was this research which prompted the drive to expand provision for two-year-olds – although this sparked off a heated debate as to whether two was too young an age for a child to be separated from their mother during the day.

The childcare expert Penelope Leach, author of a childcare study which tracked 1,200 children and their families between the ages of three months to just over four years, warned that childcare was an inappropriate option for children until at least the age of 18 months. A middle road is struck by the first major evaluation of the Sure Start programme two years ago by academics at Birkbeck College, the University of London. It said there was no discernible evidence of improvement in the development areas targeted by the initiative but also warned it was too early to draw conclusions. A glance through all the available research would tend to show it is the quality of provision that is the key to determining whether pre-school education will be of benefit to your child, not just the fact that it is being provided.

What is the reaction from Government?

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said it was "still too early" to measure the success or failure of its investment with any great authority.

However, Ms Hughes stressed that the EPPE research had shown that "investment in high-quality inclusive early education leads to positive effects for children, families and communities, particularly in areas of disadvantage".

Ministers can take heart from a report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, published yesterday which shows a steady improvement in the standards of early-years setting. The report revealed that 96 per cent of childcare providers inspected during the past year were at least satisfactory – with at least 57 per cent of them rated as good or outstanding. The only cloud on the horizon was that the percentage of child-minders who were rated good or outstanding had fallen by six per cent in the past year.

What is the evidence from abroad?

According to the Daycare Trust again, countries like Sweden and Denmark have managed to break the link between parental income and a child's future outcomes. However, it argues, this has been achieved through a combination of factors – including a generous parental leave system allied to top-quality early childhood education and care.

It is worth noting as well that most European countries, while they have for years had better pre-school and nursery education provision, do not start formal schooling until the age of six. There is a school of thought that our pre-school provision – during which each child will be assessed on a range of more than 100 indicators – followed by earlier formal schooling could put some children under too much pressure and end up turning them off education.

What is likely to happen as a result of the report?

The short answer is more research. Almost all the published material up until now agrees that it may be too early to assess the impact of the Government's programme – and ministers are not about to do a U-turn on such a key policy unless it can be proved conclusively that they have spent their £21bn in vain. Even then, any such finding would provoke considerable debate before any action was taken.

Should the Government spend billions on early-years education?


* Research shows that children with three years of quality early-years provision are a year ahead by the time they start school

* Action is necessary to reduce the gap in educational attainment between youngsters from rich and poor homes – evidence of which emerges by the age of two

* Children learn to socialise better before they start school


* Children should be spending more time with their parents in their formative years

* Some display tendencies of bad behaviour if they find their early-years' setting boring

* The Government is spending £21bn on its early-years programme – but so far there is no discernible evidence that it's having any effect