Writing on his blog in the Telegraph, Toby Young suggests the reaction on Twitter to Liz Truss’s comments on nursery education show ignorance of both of what she actually said and of evidence into nursery education. He also suggests that while those complaining on Twitter are mainly middle class, it is the poor and disadvantaged who stand to gain most from Truss’s recommendations…
The Twitterati reacted with typical ignorance to Liz Truss’s interview in the Daily Mail in which she called for a more traditional, French approach to nursery education. It was Truss’s comment that toddlers are “running around with no sense of purpose” in some English nurseries that seems to have wound them up.
Anand Shukla, the chief executive of the Daycare Trust, tweeted: “Just what sense of purpose do we expect toddlers to have?”
Helen Lewis of the New Statesman parodied her comments as an attack on “pint-sized slackers”, while an account calling itself Labour Sure Start tweeted: “Liz Truss is doing a fab job of outlining the Tory childcare vision: warehouses of toddlers being drilled rigorously by 1950s matrons.”
Even the Telegraph’s Iain Martin described Truss’s comments as a “potential jump the shark moment for the government”. According to Martin, “Toddlers do *not* need a ‘sense of purpose’. They are toddlers.”
The first point to make is that Truss did not use the phrase “running around with no sense of purpose”. Rather, that was a summary of her views at the top of the piece. If you scroll down, you’ll see that what she actually said was:
Free-flow play is not compulsory, but there is a belief across lots of nurseries that it is. I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.
In these settings where there aren’t sufficiently qualified staff, and children are running around, we are not getting positive outcomes.
We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school.
Far from advocating that children should be “drilled” by “1950s matrons”, Truss is saying that the nursery staff entrusted with their care should be graduates with some experience of early years education, just as they are in France. It’s a bit inconsistent for members of the Labour Party to attack that policy, when Stephen Twigg, the shadow education spokesman, has consistently attacked Michael Gove for allowing free schools and academies to employ staff who don’t have qualified teacher status.
One Left-wing blog – Notes From A Broken Society – claimed that there is no evidence to support Truss’s views: “As so often with the ideology emerging from Gove’s education department, it is desperately at odds with evidence-backed good practice.”
In fact, the evidence that good nursery education – and well-qualified nursery teachers, in particular –has a lasting, positive impact on children is overwhelming. For instance, a research paper published by six economists in 2011 – four from Harvard, one from Berkeley and one from Northwestern – found that children who’d had a good kindergarten teacher could expect, on average, to earn $20 more per week at the age of 27 than children who hadn’t. The research, which was based on a cohort study involving 11,500 children in Tennessee, also found that recipients of a good nursery education were less likely to become teenage parents, more likely to go to university and less likely to die young. The findings of the paper were summarised by David Leonhardt in the New York Times, who concluded: “Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance.” Those were precisely the virtues Liz Truss praised in the Daily Mail.
Many of the objections to Truss’s remarks about children “running around” are based on the assumption that it’s harmful to children – against their nature in some fundamental way – to begin their formal education at the age of two, as some children do in France. In fact, there’s a substantial body of research evidence suggesting that the French approach has a lasting beneficial impact. Here’s the American educationalist ED Hirsch summarising the research:
French social scientists completed longitudinal studies of some four thousand children on the long-term effects ofécoles maternelles on the more than 30 per cent of French two-year-olds who now attend these preschools. The results are striking. Those who attend school at a younger age are more effective academically and, by all indirect measures, better adjusted and happier for having had early exposure to challenging and stimulating early academic experiences.
Nearly all of the people objecting on Twitter to Truss’s remarks were middle class – people like Gaby Hinsliff, an ex-Guardian journalist. The irony is that the main beneficiaries of a more old-fashioned approach to nursery education, with the emphasis on instilling virtues like patience, discipline, manners and perseverance, are children from socially deprived backgrounds – those children least likely to learn those skills in the home…