Children must grow beyond the nursery: Matthew Hoffman warns against political offers of an instant fix for a complex educational problem

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The Independent Online
IN THE middle of November the National Commission on Education, a task force headed by the former Warden of Wadham College, Sir Claus Moser, recommended that Britain should commit itself to providing nursery education for 85 per cent of three- year-olds and 95 per cent of four-year-olds. The annual cost, it estimated, would be pounds 860m, plus capital expenditure. Now, less than six weeks later, John Major has publicly committed himself to moving 'over time to universal nursery education': he said last week that he would rather put money into nursery than 'mainstream' education.

The reasoning behind this commitment seems, at first blush, impeccable. 'The first five years of a child's life,' the National Commission report tells us, 'is a time when children establish attitudes and behaviour patters which are vital for future learning progress and social development.'

Additionally, the day care provided by nurseries would free single mothers of small children, allowing them to rejoin the workforce and alleviate their families' dependency on income support. Finally, according to the commission, this proposal would actually result in savings over the long term. The report pointed to evidence from the United States that had shown 'striking cost/benefit claims' for pre-school education: 'For every dollar invested . . . dollars 7.16 is returned to the taxpayer by way of savings on the costs of juvenile delinquency, remedial education, income support and joblessness.'

The Mail on Sunday reprinted this statistic in a feature that called Britain 'stupid' for not moving to shore up 'our economic prospects and our standing in the world' by financing the 'certain remedy' of 'long-term investment in nursery schools'.

In his inaugural address in February, Bill Clinton made similar claims: 'We all know,' he told the American people, 'that Head Start (a US pre-school programme targeted at disadvantaged children) saves money. For every dollar we invest today we save three tomorrow. It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing.'

With that, he proposed to raise spending on Head Start from dollars 2.7bn ( pounds 1.8bn) to dollars 8bn by 1997. Until the President drew attention to it, Head Start, a Sixties legacy of Lyndon Johnson's 'war on poverty', had always been uncontroversially regarded as a useful programme. But with so much expansion promised - and so much new money to be found - doubting voices were raised. Representative Bill Archer, a Republican from Texas, spoke of 'studies that show a high degree of fade-out of the programme's benefits if there is no follow-through'. A few weeks later, in response to the challenge from opponents to prove his figures about savings in reduced juvenile delinquency and other social costs, Mr Clinton was backtracking. He accepted that 'cognitive improvements don't always last more than two years after children stop attending' Head Start programmes.

By October, Douglas Besharov, a member of a government advisory committee set up to report on Head Start, was telling the Washington Post that 'the programme does not have long-lasting effects, and after a few years of school it is impossible to tell which students attended Head Start'.

Perhaps these second thoughts about the US evidence appeared too late to be taken into account by the Moser commission. But they seem to be suggesting that nursery education will make a difference to a child's future development only if it is followed up by excellent subsequent schooling. And even then, it is of importance only for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If most children do not benefit in any quantifiable way from pre-schooling, does it make much sense to create a vast new universal programme for nursery education at the expense of 'mainstream' schooling? On the mixed evidence we have, those local authorities that already provide good primary and secondary schooling could improve the performance of their least-advantaged children by offering them free, high-quality nursery education. The others should concentrate on improving their mainstream schools first.

Politicians want to go to the hustings proclaiming they have put in place a panacea that will result in bouncier babies, healthier youths, a richer nation and world-beating football teams. But we should not be gulled by expensive quick fixes. In a world where the knowledge on which decisions must be based is imperfect, it is best to proceed incrementally. Let Mr Major go to the nation at the next election proclaiming: 'We have made things a wee bit better, and not much worse.' Such a claim would get my vote, although, I fear, that of few others.

(Photograph omitted)

Matthew Symonds is away.