You might forgive parents reading the Sydney Morning Herald this week for thinking they’d better abandon their skinny latte and rush out to enrol their three-year-olds in a preschool where all the teachers have Masters degrees in child development.
The latest OECD education report claims children who attend preschool for the two years prior to starting school have significantly higher academic achievement at the age of 15 years. But dig a little deeper, and you find that in around half of countries included in the report, the relationship is no longer significant when socioeconomic status is taken into account. Look a little closer still, and Australia is one of those countries.
But wait, there’s more. The data on which this report bases its claims are retrospective self-report data from 15-year olds-themselves about whether they went to preschool or child care, and for how long― not exactly watertight.
International report cards like this one from the OECD are hugely influential. Unfortunately, all too often they are based on spurious statistics: a report published by UNICEF last week purported to find that the quality of Mexico’s education system is in the top three in the world, despite its low performance in international assessments. These sorts of reports are given a high profile by major media outlets, and credible organisations issue media statements in support of the findings. Yet they often just muddy the policy waters.
Parents who have had the fortune to find a great preschool or child care centre will attest to the benefits of some sort of early childhood education experience in the year or so before school. Schools in disadvantaged areas, in particular, know that children who have been to preschool or have had good part-time child care are generally better prepared for school.
This makes sense and proper empirical research supports it – all children benefit to some extent from a good pre-school education, but the greatest benefits are to children whose home environments are not conducive to language and social-emotional development.
However, it does not mean that loving and attentive parents have to pack three year old Sophie and William off to preschool or run the of risk ruining their little lives.
Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the FIVE from FIVE literacy project.
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