Politicians are calling for compulsory preschool and there is a lot of rhetoric around about ensuring all children have the benefits of a preschool education so they are not left behind when they begin school. But is compulsory preschool something we really want?
Education Minister, Julie Bishop’s argument in favour of compulsory preschool is: “many studies and research and analysis show that investment in high quality, large scale, early childhood programs find that early learning experiences, including pre-literacy and numeracy skills make the transition to school easier for children, and it increases the chances of school success.”
University studies are often quoted to support the perceived academic benefits of preschool. What is not often mentioned is that, while these studies demonstrate preschool in a favourable light when compared with an impoverished home environment, preschool does not compare favourably with the average home environment.
Even Professor Edward Zigler, credited as “the father of Headstart” a widespread American preschool program admits “there is a large body of evidence that there is little to be gained by exposing middle class children to early education … (and) evidence that indicates early schooling is inappropriate for many four-year-olds, and that it may be harmful to their development”.
If preschool were truly beneficial in terms of giving children a head start, those places with some form of compulsory preschool should do demonstrably better academically. The evidence does not bear this out.
For example, the two states of America which have compulsory preschool, Georgia and Oklahoma, have the lowest results for fourth grade reading tests in the country.
In 2000, the Program for International Study Assessment (PISA) compared the academic scores of children from 32 industrialised nations in reading literacy, maths and science. The results showed that in countries where schooling starts at a young age they do not consistently outperform those who start later.
Finland, which has a compulsory schooling age of seven, held the top ranking in all test subjects of the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMS) results in 1999.
Singapore, which also scored highly in the PISA and TIMS assessments, has no publicly funded early education programs.
By contrast, Sweden, which has one of the most comprehensive early child-care programs in Europe, was one of the lowest scoring nations.
Hungary and Czechoslovakia, cut their day-care programs significantly in the 1990s after studies determined that institutional care damages preschool-aged children.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, the longitudinal studies often quoted to argue an academic advantage provided by preschool for lower socio-economic groups, actually also show that this “advantage” disappears by grade three.
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