Analysis: Can only literacy guarantee a Sure Start?

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Initiatives like Sure Start show no lasting effects on children's achievement, argues Tom Burkard, co-author of a controversial report that recommends scrapping the Early Years Foundation Stage.

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Beyond doubt, large numbers of children in England start life at an extreme disadvantage. Parents who themselves have been poorly educated are often incapable of giving their children experiences that foster intellectual and social growth. Many of these children live in estates where unemployment, crime, family breakdown, alcoholism and drug abuse are rife.

Were Sure Start to have a measurable impact on these problems, no-one would begrudge the odd billion here or there. The economic costs of maintaining an alienated underclass are enormous, and the human costs are incalculable.

However, Sure Start has drifted away from its original focus on needy children and become a universal entitlement. In the current fiscal climate, this provision is highly vulnerable. The abolition of child tax credit for middle-class families should serve as a warning.

Although the coalition Government has announced its intention to refocus Sure Start on its original aim, it is still not clear what will happen to subsidies for Sure Start centres in 2011-2012. However, the demand for high-quality childcare is not going to disappear. Middle class parents are unlikely to deny their children good provision simply because they have to pay for it at point of use.

Given the political imperative to maintain Sure Start for vulnerable children, we believe the Government's least-bad option is to fund needy children, rather than Sure Start centres. The centres that best respond to parental demand will probably survive. However, in the present circumstances, it is unlikely that any pre-school intervention - no matter how well conceived or lavishly funded - will significantly improve the life chances of children from our sink estates. They may be good for mothers and children in other ways, and they may produce significant early gains in cognitive and social development. Unfortunately, these gains almost invariably fade very quickly once the child begins full-time school.

AMERICAN EXAMPLES

For all the money that has been poured into pre-school interventions in the United States, there is precious little to show for it. Advocates are still citing the 1962 High/Scope Perry intervention in Ypsilanti, Michigan - that's almost half a century ago. This was an intensive programme costing, in today's money, about £10,000 per child.

Effectively, it was an immersion programme that produced a whole new environment for African-American infants and their mothers. This was possible because Ypsilanti is a university town with a relatively small black community. Even then, the long-term gains were minimal. A 2005 follow-up study at Stanford University found that the 'alleged benefits reported in the popular media fade out in terms of statistical significance'.

The original Perry results were sufficiently encouraging to justify the 1965 launch of Head Start, the iconic American programme that served as an inspiration and a model for our own Sure Start. Head Start now spends more than $7,300 annually for each child - the kind of money that our Sure Start centres can only dream about. However, doubts about its effectiveness have been growing for some time, not the least because African-Americans (the main beneficiaries of Head Start) continue to lag far behind most other ethnic groups on all measures of academic achievement.

As with Sure Start, there has been no lack of formal evaluation, but the results have been mixed. As one researcher commented, 'Pre-schooling painfully illustrates the discouraging epigram about education research (and much else in social science): if you tell me what conclusions you'd like, I can point you to a study that meets your needs.'

To overcome this uncertainty, in 1997 President Clinton commissioned the Head Start Impact Study, which is by far the most thorough evaluation conducted to date. Although the study was completed in 2006, results were not released until this January. And it's not hard to see why: it found that 'the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by first grade for the program population as a whole'. This has had no effect on funding. Head Start employs so many African-American women that it is politically untouchable.

SYNTHETIC PHONICS

Strangely, no-one seems to be asking the obvious question: are schools themselves responsible for the failure to sustain early gains? After all, there are many well-documented cases of schools serving at-risk populations that have produced lasting gains, even without pre-school intervention. It is possible that these schools might have obtained even better results with pre-school intervention. It's not a question that anyone is asking, so we simply don't know the answer.

Invariably, these schools have an intense focus on teaching children to read. Literacy is a good proxy for educational achievement in early years. As the American psychologist Keith Stanovich has demonstrated, all cognitive development closely tracks progress in reading. Children who can decode print effortlessly are much more inclined to read, and this in turn fosters intellectual growth.

Armed with this insight, in 1992 researchers at the University of St Andrews obtained a grant from the Scottish Executive to trial different approaches to teaching decoding skills to children from disadvantaged homes. The impoverished rural authority of Clackmannanshire was chosen for trials which began in 1997.

After the first year, pupils taught with synthetic phonics outperformed those taught with more conventional approaches by an embarrassingly wide margin. The pupils did so well that the TES commented that 'it ought to spark a serious rethink of the Government's National Literacy Strategy in England'.

But even more surprisingly, these gains of the synthetic phonics pupils did not fade. Instead, they increased each year that the children were in primary school. By 2005, when these pupils finished Primary 6, their reading scores were three years ahead of norms. This evidence did eventually spark a rethink in England, and in December 2005, education secretary Ruth Kelly announced that synthetic phonics would be introduced in England.

DOGMA OR EVIDENCE

To date, this dramatic change has had no discernible effect on reading scores in England. To some extent, this is to be expected: there are 17,000 primary schools in England, and synthetic phonics represents a radical departure from the previous orthodoxy. Even more to the point, synthetic phonics must be taught with didactic methods that are virtually taboo in early years settings.

The comments of Joyce Ferguson, one of the head teachers in the Clackmannanshire trials, are telling: 'The (synthetic phonics) scheme might have been contrary to my educational philosophy, but very quickly we were impressed by the results for the less able as well as the able. The children have developed remarkable listening and concentration skills, as well as confidence and self-esteem.'

For far too long, many early years advisers have let dogma, rather than evidence, determine classroom practice. And it's a simple matter of fact that a whole range of essential knowledge and skills must be learned to the point of mastery, and these skills have a reciprocal relationship with social, emotional and intellectual growth.

However much direct instruction is derided by armchair educators, it is by far the most reliable means of teaching these basics, especially when children do not have educated parents to provide them with intellectual stimulation at home. This is not to suggest that infant teachers must return to formal regimented classrooms. In Clackmannanshire, the synthetic phonics instruction only lasted 20 minutes per day. That still leaves plenty of time for unstructured activities and learning through play.

But most importantly, early years specialists must not delay reading instruction for children with poor language skills. This lesson was vividly drawn in Southampton trials of Bear Necessities, a synthetic phonics programme for slow readers, which we developed at the Promethean Trust. The report concluded, 'Initial speech difficulties did not therefore prevent progress on the programme, and some speech difficulties were resolved by the end of six months.'

Further trials of Bear Necessities in Gloucestershire have confirmed our belief that children who lack the internal resources to become independent learners can in fact make very good progress with direct instruction. Schools minister Nick Gibb has seen at first hand the remarkable results produced by committed synthetic phonics practitioners. If the Early Years Foundation Stage survives at all, it will inevitably reflect his experience.

These questions aside, we should remember that one of the most fundamental limitations of pre-school programmes is that they don't reach a very substantial percentage of the most vulnerable children. This was highlighted in a 2007 report by Hull university, showing that take-up of Sure Start was poor in marginalised communities, such as travellers and immigrants. Parents with drug or alcohol dependency or mental health problems seldom come forward. Until more of our infant teachers experience Joyce Ferguson's epiphany, these children will have very poor chances in life.

Tom Burkard is the director of the Promethean Trust, a Norwich-based charity for dyslexic children, and co-author of 'Cutting the Children's Plan: A £5 billion experiment gone astray', published by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) on 11 June 2010. Other reports include 'Reading Fever: Why phonics must come first' (CPS, 1996, co-authored with Martin Turner,), 'The End of Illiteracy? The Holy Grail of Clackmannanshire' (CPS, 1999), 'A World First for West Dunbartonshire' (CPS, 2006), and 'Every Child A Reader: an example of how top-down education reforms make matters worse' (Policy Exchange, 2009)

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