Thursday, 3 February 2011

Early intervention is important, but don't neglect education for its own sake

The continued prominence of the early years in political discussion is reason for some optimism; it must be better to be discussed, than to be forgotten.

Ever since the famous finding from the American Perry Pre-School Project, that a dollar spent on high quality early education saved sixteen dollars of future expenditure on welfare and other costs to society, both educational researchers and politicians have been fascinated by the potential long-term effects of what happens in children’s early years.

Here in England, the EPPE Project’s findings have made a very strong case for the continued benefits to children right the way through their primary and into their secondary school education.  Building on these findings, Graham Allen MP, in his recent report on Early Intervention, argues that “we should exploit the potential for massive savings in public expenditure through an Early Intervention approach”. The report also argues for the concept of calling the birth to five phase of childhood the “foundation years”, whose “prime objective should be to produce high levels of ‘school readiness’”.
In a very similar vein, Frank Field MP’s recent report to the coalition government argues that “investing in children and families before school would also enable the Government to put taxpayers’ investment in primary and secondary education to much better effect.”

These are all potent arguments, well supported by research from around the world. But I wonder if they might give the impression that early childhood is a time for social engineering, and that the early years are just like any kind of financial investment from which a good return is wanted.

As with any other type of education, early childhood education must principally be about what the children need now for the development of their senses, the cultivation of their creativity, and the growth of their learning.

Graham Allen and Frank Field have both produced reports of substance and value, with an appropriate emphasis on the need for a well-qualified and professional workforce to work with young children and their families. As members of that workforce, I think our professional obligations are to the children as individual people being cared for and educated. Education is important for itself, for the joy of learning, and anyone who has chosen to be an educator from a sense of vocation knows that any other benefits, however significant, are of secondary importance.

First published in Nursery World.