A lesson still to be learnt: David Utting believes pre-school education pays a social dividend in lower crime rates

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The Independent Online
THE SCENE in a nursery classroom in the American industrial town of Ypsilanti, Michigan, is a delightful one, innocently devoid of any criminal associations. Sitting cross-legged with their teachers, a racially mixed group of three- to five-year-olds is making plans for a morning's activities.

After a week in Britain during which the exploits of a 'posse' of barely teenage hoodlums in south London filled news columns, the pre-school education these American children are receiving has unexpected relevance.

As members of a demonstration class run by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, they are the beneficiaries of an approach to nursery education that has been shown to cut crime. Thanks to the head start they get from pre-school, the children preparing to knead brightly coloured dough, or play with wooden building blocks, run a reduced risk of turning into teenage delinquents.

That may seem incredible, but High/Scope has figures to prove it. In the 1960s, the foundation mounted an experiment with 123 children from the town's socially deprived black community. They were divided into two groups, as alike as possible except in one respect: one group took part in a pre-school education programme; the other did not. Ever since, the children's progress has been monitored.

Some findings were encouraging, but relatively unsurprising. The children who attended nursery class adapted better to school and, as teenagers, were more likely to go into further education. Other results were far more remarkable. The girls who had been to pre-school had fewer teenage pregnancies; the boys were significantly less likely to get into trouble with the law.

Now, as they approach their thirties, the former pre-school pupils continue to astonish: they enjoy higher earnings, are more likely to own their homes and less likely to have been arrested than people in the other group. The benefits of nursery education have thus proved more far-reaching than anybody thought possible. It is estimated that, for every dollar invested in the pre-school experiment, the taxpayer (discounting inflation) has saved seven dollars in reduced costs of crime, remedial education and other social problems.

Further research ascribes the anti-delinquency effects and other enduring advantages to the quality of the High/Scope programme. Trained teachers, strong links with parents and a curriculum that encourages children to choose their activities (though under guidance) are among the ingredients of success. Moreover, the least socially advantaged children have benefited most.

Studies this side of the Atlantic have shown that children who attend the best nursery schools and playgroups - those with good equipment, a favourable ratio of adults to children, well-planned and imaginative activities - do better in primary school at least until the age of 10. We also know that failure in primary school and social deprivation are common precursors of teenage offending.

So why does pre-school education remain at the discretion of individual local authorities? Why does the approach of each financial year bring fresh warnings of cuts in nursery provision? When will politicians - wringing their hands over educational under-achievement and rising crime - finally get the message that children's early years are of critical importance?

The answer is that they once did but, with a few honourable exceptions, have allowed themselves to forget. How many now remember that it was Margaret Thatcher who, as Secretary of State for Education in 1972, put forward the case for provision for all children under five 'because there is such a rapid development of intelligence during that period'? Shamefully, neither the Labour governments of 1974-79 nor her own protracted administrations implemented her White Paper proposals.

Nearly two decades on, Kenneth Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education in 1991, pronounced her plan 'not a realistic prospect'. Was he surprised, one wonders, to discover, when he moved to the Home Office, that his new department had recently committed modest funds for a three-year evaluation of pre-school education using the High/Scope curriculum? And whose lively interest in social crime prevention had led to this experiment being agreed? Why, John Patten, a Home Office minister before he succeeded Mr Clarke at Education.

Perhaps Mr Patten will lead a return to Mrs Thatcher's long-forgotten commitment. But it is not encouraging that the Department for Education continues to insist that 'over 90 per cent' of children receive pre-school provision of some kind. This figure includes many children who attend playgroups - for an average of only two sessions a week - where standards are uneven. Other children are taken early into primary school reception classes. But studies have suggested that these fail to deliver the positive long-term effects associated with other types of pre-school experience.

Only a quarter of three- and four-year-olds attend local authority nursery schools, and the service varies wildly. In London, more than half the three- and four-year-olds in Newham attend a local authority nursery school or classes; only one in 50 in Bromley finds a place.

A House of Lords amendment to the present Education Bill makes nursery education for children with 'learning difficulties' a statutory requirement. As amended, the Bill also obliges the Secretary of State for Education to report within three years on the desirability of extending nursery provision to all children whose parents want it.

Mr Patten should shoulder the task with enthusiasm. He should make quality pre-school experience the corner-stone of a strategy for improving educational achievement and tackling the roots of delinquency. He would then start to make some sense of the Prime Minister's pretensions towards a safer and less class-ridden society.

David Utting is co-author of 'Crime and the Family' to be published on Tuesday by the Family Policy Studies Centre.