Contradictory and unhelpful to parents


Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford University, told the Sunday Times, over the weekend, that her research shows nursery does no harm to the “majority” of children under two.  She also argues that those who attend average to high-quality nurseries will be able to form better relationships at primary school. So the message for worried Career women is that they should not feel guilty about sending their toddlers to nursery and some children may actually benefit from spending hours each day away from home.  Her findings will give some reassurance to millions of parents who took advantage of a big expansion in nursery care under the last Government, a policy intended to get mothers back to full-time work, and improve children’s educational attainment.

Her findings are based on data from the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, the largest study of its kind in Europe on the impact of early education and care on children’s development. It has followed the progress of 3,000 children since 1996. The EPPE project is the first major European longitudinal study of a national sample of young children’s development between the ages of 3 and 7 years. To investigate the effects of pre-school education, the EPPE team collected a wide range of information on 3,000 children. The study also looks at background characteristics related to parents, the child’s home environment and the pre-school settings children attended.

However, Professor Sylva also conceded that some children placed in nurseries before the age of two showed “slightly higher” levels of aggression at primary school.  That finding echoes research by Professor Jay Belsky, of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, at Birkbeck College, University of London, who claims to have found higher levels of aggression and disobedience in children who go to nursery before they are two.  Dr Penelope Leach, a psychologist who wrote the bestseller Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five, also claims children under two develop better, both socially and emotionally, at home, preferably with their mother, than in nurseries or with childminders or grandparents. Professor Sylva also  said nursery education had improved since the start of the EPPE study in 1996, but that private nurseries had further to go than those run by the state or not for profit. ‘The private nursery sector has the highest turnover of staff and the least qualified staff,’ she said.

The Australian therapist Steve Biddulph, author of the bestsellers Raising Boys and Raising Girls, is also convinced that nursery is bad for young children and that nothing can match one-to-one care, ideally by a parent.  He has launched a campaign against “slammers” — the 5% of middle-class British parents who have placed their babies in full-time nursery care, typically from 8am to 6pm.  Biddulph argues that infants’ brains must be stimulated by loving interaction to develop properly, and claims that in nurseries toddlers “mill about … aching for one special adult to love them”. He claims that even the best nurseries struggle to meet the needs of very young children and that the worst are “negligent, frightening and bleak”.

A University of Otago researcher, Dr Sebastian Suggate claims, for instance, to have uncovered for the first time quantitative evidence that teaching children to read from age five is not likely to make that child any more successful at reading than a child who learns reading later, from age seven. Most worrying, bearing in mind recent changes to the  Foundation curriculum in this country and a new push to encourage earlier reading in our children, he could not find any quantitative controlled study within the English-speaking world to ascertain whether later starting readers were at an advantage or disadvantage. He found only one methodologically weak study conducted in 1974, but nothing since that time. Yet people regularly insist that early reading is integral to a child’s later achievement and success.   And, most recently, researchers at the Office of National Statistics (ONS)  found that “on average attending early years education had no impact on any of the outcome measures”.

The trouble is, for parents, that research into early years learning, when children should  start nursery and whether there should be formal structured learning or more emphasis on play   produces hugely different research  results and views from different academics worldwide. Indeed if we look at international practice this merely adds to the confusion.

Evidence led policy is championed, as  reiterated last  week in a report from CFBT Education Trust .  But what happens if the evidence is mixed and contradictory. These academics can’t all be right.  Given opinions are so polarised in academe, parents remain confused and are left to follow their instincts and intuition.


Sylva was Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment during their Inquiry into Early Education (2001). She served on  the last Governments advisory committees concerned with national assessment, evaluation of programmes such as Sure Start, and curriculum for children 0-7 years (2003, 2005-6, 2008). She advised the Scottish Parliament in 2005-6 on Early Years; and in 2006 she advised the Government on the teaching of phonic.  She has been given honorary doctorates by the Open University and Oxford Brookes University.


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