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HomeLaura PerrinsLaura Perrins: Beware the media spin. Families not nurseries boost later exam...

Laura Perrins: Beware the media spin. Families not nurseries boost later exam success


The Sunday Times was in good form with this classic piece of cherry-picking journalism. “The nursery kids are all right,” we were told. Not really, it just depends on how you define ‘nursery kids,’ and ‘all right’. This news item was complete with a delightful photograph of children aged three or four in school uniforms. Funnily enough the eight-month-old infant crying in the baby room was not featured.

It reports: “In the study — by the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education project — youngsters drawn from 141 nurseries scored GCSEs that were seven grades higher than those of children who had not been to pre-school or nursery.”

Based on this, The Sunday Times implies that parents who are putting even very young children – one of the Mums quoted had her one year old doing 7:30 am – 6 pm three days a week – should be “slapping themselves on the back”. I was suspicious of this, so I tracked down the research which I found here.

It is a fascinating report. I have cherry-picked the following that the Sunday Times conveniently left out.

First, of note, is that this report considers the outcomes of children who are now aged between 18 and 21. The original sample was spread over 4 academic years. The youngest completed their GCSEs in 2012.

These children were born between 1993-1996, quite some time ago. These children may have had very different experiences to your average one-year-old today, who is clocking up nearly 12 hours a day in nursery, some five days a week.

The report does indeed say, “Attending any pre-school, compared to none, predicted higher total GCSE scores, higher grades in GCSEs English and maths, and the likelihood of achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grade A*-C.”

So the comparison is with children who 18-21 years ago had no pre-school experience whatsoever before the age of 4 or 5.

This is not the same as saying if you are a full-time mother today you are damaging your kids, because I do not know of a single full-time mother who does not send their children to school nursery, i.e. 15 hours pre-school education offered to all children, to be extended to disadvantaged 2-year-olds this year. Journos love to conflate pre-school education with childcare. This is a prime example.

This does not mean, as The Sunday Times implies, that putting one-year-olds into private commercial nurseries for up to 10 days hour a day is a good idea. One, should certainly not be patting oneself on the back for it, as even if your child does well in their GCSE some 15 years later, they may suffer significant amounts of stress, as indicated by higher cortisol levels, while at nursery, as the majority of the research still demonstrates.

These children also display poorer behaviour up until about 10, which then fades out. One of the authors admits: “In the early stages of the work we found that where children had high levels of group daycare in the first year of life there was an increase in antisocial behaviour at ages three, five and seven — but by the time they were 10 years old it had disappeared.”

That is fine then. So for most of primary school their classmates and their teachers have to put up with this poor behaviour. Just suck it up, we are told, for ten years.

In addition, the report confirms there is no additional benefit to a child attending full-time nursery instead of part-time and much depends on the quality of the pre-school. The quality of pre-school was especially important for children whose parents had low qualifications.

Also the best pre-school experience is at integrated centres or a school setting, so a school nursery where you benefit from a qualified teacher provides the greatest benefit. A commercial nursery, full of under-qualified staff, will not necessarily confer the same benefit.

I am afraid Sunday Times journalist, today’s full-time mothers are much more likely to use school nurseries as these are for only 3 hours a day. This is much more difficult for employed mothers to use, who usually need full-time commercial settings instead.

However crucially, the report finds: “Taken together family influences are the strongest predicators of exam success, just as they were at Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3.” The Sunday Times left this out – family influence remains the biggest influence, not pre-school experiences.

It concludes, that of the children studied, “all were influenced the most between 3 and 16 years by their families.” (Their emphasis). In fact, “after taking into account other influences, parents’ highest qualification level (compared to no qualifications) was the strongest predictor of better attainment in GCSE English.”

A question for another day is, whether we should be letting GCSE results and possible future earnings dictate how we care for our infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers. I must say, it is not high up on my agenda.

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