When a lot is a little that could be much more

When a lot is a little that could be much more
12 August 2011

The value of pre-school provision is now generally accepted and, despite budget cuts, most governments in the economically developed world have maintained backing for this provision, while the emerging economies view such investment as fundamental.

Public services delivered to children aged two to five years reap dividends 20 and 30 years later for children, communities and society. Reynolds and Melhuish’s excellent papers, published in Science and reviewed in Prevention Action over the last two days [See:It works here, it works there, it works everywhere and When an effective intervention seems to falter], show that the range of significant impacts attributable to good early years provision, and how long lasting those impacts are. Yet these effects are modest.

For example, Reynolds notes the way in which the Chicago child-parent centers led to more children eventually going to university. For some of the most disadvantaged children in the economically developed world it boosts the rate from 11 to 15 per cent. But this is well under half the national norm.

To take another example: the Chicago pre-school intervention led to children earning $800 more a year than had they not received the support. Yet their average salary at 2007 prices when they were 28 years old was $11,600. The per capita income in Chicago at the time was about $40,000. And while Chicago child-parent centers cut the incarceration rate by six percentage points, that still left one in seven beneficiaries of the program being carted off to jail.

Chicago child-parent centers are making a difference, and those differences are being felt for many years. But it seems they cannot get near to compensating for the extraordinary handicaps with which society weighs down poor urban children.

The same limitations of impact are evident in Melhuish’s paper. Eighteen months of high quality pre-school provision outstrips the contribution to reading and literacy of six years of primary school, but the table of effects also shows that both pre-school and primary school are dwarfed by the impact of a good home learning environment and mother’s education.

Given these shortcomings and the general support for pre-school provision, can we begin to speak a little louder about its limitations? And to these must be added the persistent complaints about early years provision. These are its failure to reach the neediest children and the huge variation in quality and fidelity fed by the absence of support for professional development.

Much of the evidence base rests on the great expansion of early years provision in the 1960s and 1970s, supplemented by the recent major developments such as the Sure Start children’s centres in England.
The emerging economies such as China and Brazil have listened to the evidence and are also investing heavily. They may replicate the Western experience, and presumably achieve the same impressive but modest results. Or they could experiment with enhanced models that seek to squeeze more out of the early years’ orange.

Reference
Ted Melhuish, Preschool Matters: Evidence grows that starting preschool at age 3 or 4 can produce benefits decades later, Science, 5th July 2011, Volume 333

School-Based Early Childhood Education and Age-28 Well-Being: Effects by Timing, Dosage and Sub-groups, Arthur J. Reynolds, et. al. Science, 15th July 2011

Explainers

Chicago Parent Center Program

The Chicago Parent Center Program is an early intervention that provides comprehensive educational and family-support services to economically disadvantaged children from preschool to early elementary school. Established in 1967. it is the second oldest (after Head Start) federally funded preschool program in the US and the most enduring early childhood intervention.

Initially implemented in four sites and later expanded to 25, it is designed to serve families in high-poverty neighborhoods that are being served by other early childhood programs. The overall goal is to promote children's academic success and to facilitate parent involvement in children's education.

Sure Start

Sure Start Local Programmes (SSLPs) have been at the cornerstone of UK Government's drive to tackle child poverty and social exclusion through better prevention and early intervention.
Programs are universal in that they are available to all families with young children in disadvantaged areas. There is considerable variation in how programs are implemented since each decides its own curriculum. Programs cover outreach and home visiting, support for families and parents, good quality play, learning and child care, health care and support for children with special needs. Despite mixed evaluation results, Sure Start programs have been extended and subsumed into a broader policy to provide children's centers.

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