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Sure start, sure finish
Kathy Sylva's advice to the government about under-fives isn't always popular. She talks to Karen Gold
Kathy Sylva sounds quite breathless enumerating a decade of under-fives' initiatives. "The speed of change has been extraordinary," she says. "The early childhood landscape has been transformed." She lists the policies since Labour came to power in 1997: free nursery education for four-year-olds in 1998; for three-year-olds in 1999; Sure Start, announced in 1998, rolled out from 1999; an official early childhood curriculum in place by 2000; the Neighbourhood Nurseries programme for the most deprived communities established in 2001; a national network of children's centres launched in 2003.
It sounds quite like a manifesto clip. But although Oxford's professor of educational psychology and lifetime under-fives researcher is an enthusiast, she is not an apologist. In fact, with Gillian Pugh, chief executive of the children's charity Coram Family and fellow member of the tightly knit early childhood lobby, she recently attacked the government's latest plans to expand children's centres in print, arguing they were under-funded and had lost sight of children's needs in the cause of political expediency.
The needs of small children "for play, for socialisation, for learning" and how they can best be met have been the backbone of Sylva's career, ever since as a PhD psychology student at Harvard she took 180 toddlers, one by one, out of their playgroup and into a "play laboratory", and then tested their problem-solving abilities.
She never did that kind of research again: "I don't regret the rigour of my training; I think it's made me a better researcher. But the irony of dragging children away from a natural learning experience to give them an unnatural learning experience made me realise I wanted to study children in real settings from then on."
Band of hopefuls
So in 1975 she came to England, where the activities of very small children appeared to be of no interest to anyone except the visionary Jerome Bruner, a fellow American and professor of experimental psychology at Oxford. She joined his team of young hopefuls, now nearly all big names themselves, who for five years investigated the daily minutiae of small children's play and learning, and documented it in a series of books, of which the volume focusing on two-year-olds - Childwatching at Playgroup and Nursery School - was Sylva's.
Those five books, she says, contained proposals for almost every under-fives policy that in the 21st century have become standard aspiration and/or practice: universal access to early-years education, full-day sessions, guided rather than entirely free play, integrated care and learning. At the time though, the silence was deafening. No British politician was interested in the under-fives.
In America, however, an extraordinary early-years research project was beginning to twitch political antennae. More than 20 years after the first 50 deprived black pupils went through a High/Scope enriched nursery programme, the follow-up of their subsequent lives showed a state saving of $250,000 each compared with what had to be spent on welfare, remedial education and crime consequences for a comparable 50 children from similar backgrounds without the pre-school input.
Sylva was asked by the Thatcher government in Britain to look into High/Scope. At the same time, the Royal Society of Arts asked her to co-direct a three-year inquiry into early-years education: Right Start. From both she drew a message that has permeated her work ever since: that in the early years, you get what you pay for. Higher-quality investment produces better results: "That's the rationale for pouring money into the early childhood system," she argues. "The more money you pour in, the better quality you get, and the better quality you get, the more you improve outcomes. We have good evidence of that, and it's important, because many other services don't actually have that evidence."
With under-fives rising up the policy agenda, she and four colleagues - Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Brenda Taggart - all based at London's Institute of Education, to which she had moved, constructed a research project comparing the outcomes of different kinds of early childhood settings in England. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (Eppe) project had the most ambitious under-fives framework ever attempted in Europe: to look at 3,000 children from birth to seven, at home, in playgroup, daycare and nursery school, to see what impact everything from alphabet teaching to going shopping had on their later learning. It also had a Tory steer: everything was to be compared for efficiency and cost.
Then Labour got in, bearing vote-winning promises to expand nursery provision, get parents back to work, raise school standards and do something about deprivation. The Eppe team had the political nous to seize the moment. "We changed our research design to include the impact different settings had on deprivation, and to put a much bigger emphasis on the social, emotional and motivational outcomes in children of different settings. We also put a bigger focus on looking at the family's influence on the child. We hadn't planned to look at the new integrated settings (integrating daycare and education) but now we put them in, because we thought if the plan was to transform society in early childhood, then those integrated settings probably had the best chance of doing it."
Such changes were very palatable to her. "Because I'm a developmental psychologist, I'm always wanting to look at the interaction between educational provision and the whole, developing child. I wouldn't want to just look at a school's influence on children's reading. I'd want to look at disposition and social behaviour, at how those children felt about their reading, how that might feed into their self-confidence, and their potential risk of delinquency."
The government's adviser
So she was the obvious candidate for a government looking for ideas, advice and evidence base. She did ministerial, Cabinet Office and Downing Street briefings; she became early childhood adviser to the House of Commons select committee on education; she sat on the quango setting up the under-fives' (foundation stage) curriculum, and on advisory and evaluation teams for the Treasury-led scheme that drew its name from her RSA inquiry: Sure Start.
For a while every new tranche of EPPE results brought ministerial interest: "Margaret Hodge was passionate about under-fives: every time we had a report she would launch it from Westminster." Since then things have gone quieter. The 3,000 Eppe children are 11 now; next year's results will show that those with high-quality pre-school intervention are still overcoming the poor educational and social trajectories normally associated with deprivation, and outperforming their peers.
But Sylva's message does not sit so comfortably today. Not all settings are equal, is a key Eppe finding. The most effective by far are children's centres where daycare and education are integrated, and state nursery schools. Both are expensive, because they employ well-paid, graduate-level staff. Private day nurseries, the expected source of the government's planned replacement of Sure Start in the next few years, have neither the same staff nor the same impact.
And of all her research, it is the impact of the setting on the whole child that surprised and delighted Sylva most. Early on, she says, she had expected education-focused settings to produce the best educational outcomes, while care-focused settings would socialise children best. But in fact it doesn't work like that: an emphasis on care does not dilute education, while high-quality education has a highly positive social, behavioural and motivational impact on the child. Virtuous, they feed off each other: "In a really well-managed, well-staffed, creative, exciting place, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Finding that has been very interesting indeed."
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