Laura Perrins is a former barrister turned stay at home mother. She campaigns for Mothers at Home Matter.
Last week, I attended an All Party Parliamentary Group from Conception to Age Two event with Andrea Leadsom MP, Frank Field MP, and the Rt Hon Dame Tessa Jowell MP in attendance. They believe that early childhood development ECD (it now has its own acronym) must be placed at “the top of the global policy agenda, enabling children to achieve their full developmental potential and to contribute to equitable economic and social progress worldwide”.
They also want the embryos to attend school. Ok, that is not true, but Dame Tessa did state that of the nine babies born each day at neighbouring St Thomas and Guys hospital, some were ‘born into inequality.’ So it is never too early for the State to rescue newborn babies from a life of inequality, it follows that a whole raft of state intervention measures will conveniently be justified. Her words came hot on the heels of those of Baroness Morgan who stated, two days previously, that she would like to see two year olds attend school. So many titles, so little sense.
Speaking afterwards, she added: “I said three to 18 (should attend school) – it could be two to 18 as far as I’m concerned.” Why not two indeed? Why not one, or six months or even at the foetal stage? The message from these politicians seems to be: under threes are simply too important to be left in the hands of mere parents. All that helping mum around the house, emptying the dishwasher, going to the shops…it will not do anymore. No, we must have the experts in charge as soon as possible.
What I find so bemusing about all of this is that, on one hand, politicians say the early years are so important that we must get the under threes into formal settings as soon as possible, (especially disadvantaged toddlers), and yet mothers should not care for their children at home but instead go back to work as soon as possible. (Consider the case of Maria Miller, who babbles on about this frequently). If a mother takes time out of her career to care for her children at home she is “wasting her talent”. She has better things do be doing with her time than reading fairy tales and singing nursery rhymes to her children (not to mention wiping noses and bottoms). Get her back to employment. But then this same political class then says that early childhood development is so important that it needs to be top of the ‘global policy agenda’. Joined up thinking? I think not.
Politicians of every hue like to propose early intervention to tackle the “achievement gap” between disadvantaged and middle-class toddlers. Now, I am not saying that a gap does not exist. But I do dispute that there is any evidence to say that formal learning for three year olds closes this gap over the long-term.
In the United States, the Perry study is much cited as evidence that intensive intervention for toddlers closes the equality/social gap. But on closer analysis, this is not true. Research found that there was an increase in income between the Perry group and non-Perry group (all from disadvantaged backgrounds), but that it came nowhere near to closing the gap between the group and their middle-class classmates. And any improvement was not passed on to the next generation.
Similarly, Sure Start was evaluated by the Department of Education in 2010. It found that although there were benefits to parental behaviour “only in the case of physical health did children directly benefit”. There was no discernible effect to “school readiness”, as measured by the Early Years Foundation Stage. Or consider Ontario, which is currently in the fourth year of a five-year rollout for full-day junior and senior kindergarten, meaning that children as young as three attend school all day, five days a week.
On evaluation, full-day kindergarten did nothing to permanently improve academic performance. But it stunted the emotional and social development of many children, and had a very negative impact on children with special needs. While children from poor or disadvantaged families derived short-term benefits from extra attention in kindergarten, these disappeared by the time they reached grade one. So the idea that formal learning for pre-school children narrows the gap between rich and poor toddlers is a myth. Early intervention such as this will not solve the problem it seeks to remedy, and indeed may exasperate it.
So there is very little evidence that starting school at two or even three will lead to improved educational outcomes – but it will stunt emotional development. This is before we get to awkward fact that in reality there is no money for such programmes – and that if there is any gain, even short-term advantage, the programme must be very high quality and therefore very expensive. Considering how abysmal state education is for 5–18 years olds, as confirmed by the OECD in a study that found grandparents outperforming their grandchildren in numeracy and literacy, what basis is there for thinking that it would do a better job with toddlers?
Is there any benefit at all from these programs? I am willing to accept that, for children from very chaotic homes, a short time in a different care setting will provide respite. It will not improve outcomes long-term, but they will have a better day there – and this is not a benefit to be ignored. However, if a home is so chaotic that time away from it is better than time in it, we should be looking to improve home life long-term. In short, mum and child need support not separation. Mums and baby should be treated as a unit in any proposed early years intervention scheme. If we do not improve home life long-term, any intervention that just focuses on the child will dissipate over time.
So there is a need for some intervention for a hard-core minority group of parents for whom parenting is very challenging. But focusing on the minority of challenging cases does not mean that the majority of parents cannot do the job themselves, or indeed pay others to care for their children should that be necessary. The majority of parents are more than capable of raising their children without interference from the state.