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At what age should children start school? It’s a debate whose participants tend to talk at cross-purposes, because those who favour an older starting age usually also favour high-quality pre-school education for the children they’d take out of the primary system.

As Tom Chivers points out in the Telegraph, there’s a lot of research to show that specialised early years education can make a massive difference to the lives of deprived children:

“…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…”

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from longitudinal studies that follow the progress of children from their pre-school years all the way into adulthood:

“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.”

This American study found that compared to the control group, the average benefit to the public for each child that went through the pre-school programme was valued at nearly $200,000. This was composed of later savings to the education system, taxes on earnings, welfare savings and crime savings. 

“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… Early education, it seems, changes the lives of poor children, for the better.”

Tom Chivers then veers off into a discussion as to whether earlier years education should be overtly focused on the 3Rs or whether it should be about learning through play. Citing further research, he favours the more liberal approach:

“…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.”

This is simplifying matters somewhat. Formal education is almost certainly not appropriate for pre-school children, but that doesn’t mean that the prospects of disadvantaged toddlers are going to improved by enhanced opportunities to “hit each other with toys.” Unstructured learning environments – whether in the home or elsewhere – are all about giving children the fundamental things they need in order thrive when they do go to school i.e. emotional security, basic vocabulary and the rudiments of civilised behaviour. If children from deprived backgrounds aren’t getting these things at home then it is vital that they get them from pre-school programmes.

Liberals often question the reality of widespread social breakdown. Yet the fact that they consider pre-school intervention by the state to be so necessary would suggest that many thousands of families do not provide the material, intellectual and spiritual nourishment that all children need in their early years. If that isn't evidence of widespread social breakdown, then what is?

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