Early years education is key to future success in life

Featured Image

‘The first year of school is unique’

The importance of the early years in a child’s life cannot be overstated. As teachers we play our part as we open up the world of learning for their first year in school. We often talk about how children are like sponges at this age – they soak up every bit of learning so quickly. And there is statistical truth to this.

Studies have shown that the gains that children make in their first year of school stay with them all the way through to their exams at age 16. Not only does an effective early years impact how well they perform in school, but a recent research paper from the UK Department for Education also showed that it has an economic impact on their earning potential as adults.

Kate Bailey, Managing Director of Cambridge Centre for Evaluation & Monitoring, has been involved in early years education research for many years and her chapter, ‘Progress Made During the First Year at School’ is included in the recently published book The First Year at School: An International Perspective (Tymms et al., 2023).

In taking an international perspective, we’re beginning to understand not just how skills learned in the first year at school impacts a child’s life, but what impacts the development of those early skills, such as learning in a different language to that spoken at home.

Language learning in the early years

Central to Kate’s chapter is a message that, although tempting, comparing performance across countries is loaded with challenges because of the huge contextual differences including early years policies, levels of poverty and language of instruction. Language is a factor that Kate considers in more detail.

There are some key questions raised in the chapter that are worth further examination:

  • Does speaking two or more languages at an early age give a greater cognitive advantage to children? What does this look like in the short and the long term?
  • Do learners benefit more from being taught in their home language?
  • What is the impact of having a teacher who is not a native speaker of the language of instruction?

There are two strands of thought. The first being that yes, additional language use at home gives a cognitive advantage to children which supports higher levels of development through language acquisition. The other is that the complexity of language actually impairs the development of other important early skills and concepts which delays strong progress in the first year of school.

This is something incredibly important for international schools to consider. Using a baseline assessment, like BASE, gives teachers greater insight into how children are developing in all key areas of learning, including language, and it allows them to put extra support or interventions in place as early as possible.

No other year sees such significant educational achievement

It is insights from a baseline assessment that Kate uses to explore early years education in two very different contexts: England and the Western Cape of South Africa. Despite the differences in culture, language, curriculum, pedagogy, and policy, children in both regions made ‘significant educational progress in both reading and mathematics of a magnitude rarely seen in other aspects of education.’

It is amazing to think about the amount of progress children make over such a short space of time, especially when we consider the unique challenges that teachers face in the early years. Each year, a classroom full of new small faces are presented, each with their own unique pre-school experiences, personal preferences and home environment. There is no carefully curated set of notes moving from one teacher to another – the teacher must navigate all that variation and quickly.

Importance of high-quality provision in the early years

Why quickly? Because children are sponges. The earlier learning or interventions are put in place, the more likely the benefits will stick with the child for longer. Drawing on several research projects and large-scale studies in this theme, Kate concludes her chapter.

An effective early years education stays with a child for life. A child in an effective early years classroom is more likely to be amongst the highest achieving throughout their infant years. A child in an effective early years classroom is more likely to carry this advantage in attainment along through their primary years. They are also more likely to achieve higher grades in their exams at age 16 and go on to earn more than their peers.

Schools and policy-makers have a clear responsibility to ensure high-quality provision for this first year of school. The next step is to understand what an effective early years education looks like.


Learn more about Early Years baseline assessments

CEM Early Years Assessment