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Nursery pupils do 'significantly better' at school
John Clare, Education Editor (Filed: 26/11/2004)

All children, whatever their home background, do significantly better at school if they have been to a good nursery or playgroup, a study published yesterday by the Department for Education said.

On average, seven-year-olds who had received some pre-school education scored 30 per cent higher in English and maths than those who had not, and 50 per cent higher if they had attended a high-quality nursery from the age of two.

The study, by researchers at London and Oxford universities, found that nurseries were particularly effective if they had "an instructive learning environment". Play was not enough. Children needed to be taught reading and maths by trained teachers.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefited most from pre-school education and were less likely to develop special educational needs later, the study said.

The findings were welcomed by Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, who said they justified the 13 billion the Government has spent since 1997 on providing a nursery place for every child aged three and four and on early years initiatives such as Sure Start.

"This stunning, comprehensive piece of research means we can now say definitively, for the first time, that high quality pre-school experiences make a real difference to children's attainment and social development throughout the early years of primary school," she said.

The finding that an early start - as young as two - could have an even greater impact on a child's development should reassure parents who felt guilty about putting very young children into nurseries, she added.

The study identified seven characteristics of the most effective nurseries:

"Shared thinking" - adults and children worked together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative.

Children were not left to their own devices - instead, there was an equal balance between staff and children in initiating activities.

Pre-school workers had a sound knowledge of what they were teaching.

Play activities were freely chosen but "potentially instructive"; they were combined with "interaction traditionally associated with the term `teaching'".

The staff included properly trained teachers.

Parents were fully engaged in their children's learning.

The children were encouraged to behave well.

Although pre-school education helped to reduce the effects of disadvantage, it did not eliminate them, the study said.

Parents' education and social class remained important predictors of children's development.

In particular, children whose mothers had a degree tended to do better at school, as did those whose parents were classified as "professional non-manual" and had a joint income of at least 37,500.

The study also showed that parents who "engaged and stretched their children's minds" made a positive difference.

Such activities included teaching children their letters and numbers, encouraging them to paint and draw, singing them songs and nursery rhymes, reading to them and taking them to the library.

The benefits held good irrespective of social background. "What parents do with their children is more important than who parents are," the study said. It added that parents were more likely to engage in such activities with girls.

The study - by the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project - followed the progress over four years of 2,800 children who had pre-school education and compared it with the performance of 300 children who had not.

The study admitted that it was "not possible to conclude with certainty" that the much lower attainments of the "home" group were directly due to lack of pre-school experience. But the statistical analyses "strongly suggested" that pre-schooling provided a significant cognitive boost.

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