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Saturday 22 July 2017

Effective early childhood education for the best start in life

Professor Iram Siraj has spent more than 30 years as an academic and researcher, leading longitudinal studies into the effectiveness of early childhood education. Education Gazette spoke with her recently about what high-quality early childhood education looks like, and her special interest in education for social equity.

Children don’t have a choice about the circumstances into which they are born, but early childhood education can help to level the playing field, says Professor Iram Siraj.

The University College of London (UCL) academic visited the Ministry of Education recently from Australia, where she is currently on secondment to the University of Wollongong in New South Wales.

“You know, children don’t have a choice in who they’re born to or where they’re born. They might be born in the leafy suburbs of Wellington or in Harare. Where they go, from the maternity ward, is down to chance.

“Some parents can go to unreasonable lengths on their children’s behalf, while other parents struggle. They’re all just regular parents – human beings who are doing their best with the situation they’re in. But the second chance that children get is in early childhood education.”

Iram worked in the United Kingdom as an early years teacher in the 1980s and has been an academic and researcher for 30 years, holding positions at the universities of Warwick and London and advising on policy to the UK and other governments.

She is best known for leading longitudinal studies in various countries including the 17-year study Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16, 1997-2014) and the influential Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years project (REPEY).

Particularly interested in undertaking research which investigates disadvantage, Iram says her overarching goal is to give children and families from these backgrounds a better and fairer start. At the University of Wollongong, she is leading the Fostering Effective Early Learning (FEEL) Study which involves up to 1,800 children aged between four and five in 90 preschools and long day care centres throughout NSW.

The FEEL study is a cluster randomised controlled trial to look at how specific early childhood teaching practices which are evidence-based can have a measurable impact on improving children’s outcomes. The evidence from this study is very encouraging in raising both quality and child outcomes but it was the learning of the educators which was so powerful.

“Over the past five years, I’ve turned my attention from longitudinal studies to doing cluster randomised controlled trials to discover what happens when good practice is implemented,” she explains. “Then we use our findings to work closely with teachers to help them achieve that.

“I recently decided to change the focus of my research, so that I could work with practitioners and give away the knowledge I’ve gathered through my research. Because universities need to be there for the public good – not for people to sit in ivory towers doing project after project. It’s not about self-aggrandisement, it’s for public good.

“And of course, early childhood education is also for the public good. It is good for parents to work, as children benefit from a better financial home situation; the state benefits too.

“However, most parents would ask ‘what am I leaving my child to? Can these people deliver the same thing as I could, at home?’ The good news is that preschool education can offer the same and something different too. As a group, everybody benefits from ECE, if it’s of good quality.

“Most parents would not be surprised if you said “every child benefits from good parenting”, and everybody knows that children can be damaged from low-quality or bad parenting. Why wouldn’t that be the same for ECE?”

What does ‘high quality’ mean in ECE?

Iram says that the importance of high-quality early childhood education is critical when it comes to setting children up as lifelong learners.

One particular finding in her longitudinal studies was that children were largely set on an achievement trajectory by the age of seven.

“In one large study, we started with a group of three year olds who all had different abilities and stages of development, but by the age of seven, we found they were largely set on a particular trajectory – there were children achieving at the top, the middle and the bottom of the curve. Any movement between the trajectories happened before the children turned seven.

Another important finding was the linear relationship between a mother’s education and her children’s outcomes. “And that jumps up significantly when the mother is a graduate,” says Iram.

Iram believes good-quality ECE is not dictated by the type of provider, but rather whether it strives to provide for both the social and emotional development, and the cognitive development of a child.

“Our research shows that those settings that prioritise social and cognitive development as equal, have better outcomes for their children. So it’s not so much the type of provision, it’s what you do with it.

“It’s a fallacy to say one thing is more important than the other, that you need to have certain percentages of something. At different times, children need different things. The truth is, they need adult support with cognitive and social development, and lots of it.

“The skill of a teacher is in knowing what a particular child needs on a particular day. Different children need different things on different days. The expertise comes from engaged and sensitive teachers who are tuned in to their children.”

There are key indicators of good quality in a centre, such as good pedagogical leadership and management, ongoing professional learning and development, and communication with families.

“But the important thing for the child is the process quality. This relates to things such as relationships and adult responsiveness. Most important of all is the ability to communicate with the child, because high-quality interactions that engage a child will extend their language and thinking.

“We need sensitive practitioners who can tune in to children, as each child brings their own temperament and characteristics.”

Iram says that good child-teacher ratios are important, especially for very young children, as are the ratios of qualified teachers in a centre.

“It’s not just about qualifications though, but what people do in practice, just how it’s not just parenting, but good parenting that makes a difference to a child.

“It’s not surprising, really, that the characteristics of fantastic parenting are similar characteristics to good early childhood education. These include adults who are sensitive, responsive, loving and make the child feel secure, special and understood.

“It’s not adults who are too permissive or punitive or detached, but those who know a lot about child development and who are child-centred, and so would not expect a one year old to play in the same way as a three-year-old, for example.”

Making connections

Content knowledge is naturally very important, and in the early childhood setting this needs to be skilfully woven into daily activities.

“In water play, for example, young children might come to the conclusion that because a key sinks and the plasticine floats, all metal things sink. So a skilled ECE practitioner will find ways to teach children about surface tension and how objects relate to the density of the water by designing the activity in a certain way. Another time we might be teaching maths through water play, with different-sized containers to demonstrate how many containers it might take to fill up a big one – so you’re doing counting and volume, but the children may see it as just exploration and play.

“Helping children learn through play, communicating complicated ideas through simple activities and drawing connections between things that the children already know, involves quite sophisticated pedagogy.”

There are many ways in which this is manifested in the early childhood education setting.

“It’s not just about sitting down and practising numbers and letters, but integrating the learning in an authentic way, such as reading and singing, pouring and mixing, setting the table for lunch. Children are emergent scientists and mathematicians, readers and writers.”

Iram, who herself has nine step-grandchildren under six, finishes with a word about whānau.

“In our research, we’ve shown that when children spend time with their grandparents, it’s very good for them. Grandparents have a natural inclination to want to do the best for their grandchildren, and they have the patience, time and experience from the first time around.”

 

References for the studies mentioned by Iram

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Muttock, S., Gilden, R., & Bell, D. (2002). Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY) - DfES Research Report 356. London:
DfES publishing.

Siraj, I., Cheeseman, S., & Kingston, D. (2017). Quality Interactions Study (QIS) report: Working with DoE preschools to strengthen the quality of intentional & relational pedagogy. Sydney, AUS: DoE.

Siraj, I., Kingston, D., Neilsen-Hewett, D., Howard, S., Melhuish, E., de Rosnay, M., Duursma, E., & Luu, B. (2017). Fostering Effective Early Learning: A review of the current international evidence considering quality in early childhood education and care programmes - in delivery, pedagogy and child outcomes. Sydney, AUS: DoE.
https://education.nsw.gov.au/media/ecec/pdf-documents/FEEL-Study-Literature-Review-Final.pdf. Accessed 9 June 2017.