Kindergarten teachers shape lives

IN Ben Elton’s book Stark, a character describes British Army pre-mission briefings in which officers first state the bleeding obvious – just in case people hold different assumptions about what the bleeding obvious is.

A similar restatement of basic facts is required in the row over the pay and functions of kindergarten teachers, who recently went on strike to win a better deal on the basis that their degrees are the equivalent of primary teachers. A Melbourne radio broadcaster responded: “Really, how educated do you have to be to mind four-year-olds?”

Minding is what the teenage babysitter does sprawling on your couch while your children are tucked up in bed. It is unskilled and passive. If your kids are alive and well when you get home from the movies, child-minding has been successful.

It’s not what kinder teachers spend four years at university learning, although many spend a fair proportion of their social lives trying to convince ill-informed acquaintances otherwise. The notion that they’re just kind girls who like playing with children, and that this is an innately brainless activity, is apparently widespread.

This is partly because their largely female profession suffers from a perceived link with “motherhood” and its associated baggage, including the belief by some that caring for and educating the very young is a bovine task (children being the equivalent of backward adults, and mothers having had the tattered remnants of their intelligence expelled with the afterbirth).

There is also a view that, because women are innately nurturant and like educating children, society is not obliged to reward them materially for their skills (a principle that does not extend, strangely enough, to mechanics who love fiddling under car hoods or surgeons who never feel more alive than when they are cutting and stitching body parts).

So here comes a statement of what should be the bleeding obvious: preschool education is a complex process crucial to many children’s futures, and teachers who undertake it deserve a decent wage comparable with their primary school colleagues.

Australian research has time and again confirmed that kinder children reach that potentially defining year of prep physically, intellectually and socially prepared in a way that far outstrips non-kinder children.

American research reported by Laura Berk in her text Child Development is alarming: it suggests that preschool interventions are more important to a deprived child’s later success in life than what happens in the years when formal literacy and numeracy are taught.

Since 1965, the US Head Start program has provided thousands of economically disadvantaged children with a year or two of preschool education. In the first few years of school, children who have been in Head Start score higher in IQ and achievement than children in control groups, although these differences later decline (possibly because their high-quality preschool experience is often followed by education in deprived public-funded schools).

But Head Start kids maintain their lead on many other measures: they are less likely to be placed in special education classes or held back a year, and more complete school. Some benefits, such as lower rates of delinquency and teenage pregnancy and a greater likelihood of employment, last into young adulthood.

A separate experiment called the Carolina Abecedarian Project took 100 babies at risk of school failure (risk factors included low parental education and income, a history of poor school achievement among older siblings, and other family problems). Half were assigned to a “control” group that received only nutrition and health services. The “treatment” children were enrolled in full-time daycare where they received stimulation aimed at promoting motor, cognitive, language and motor skills, including – after the age of three – the kinds of pre-reading and math concepts emphasised in kindergarten activities. Both groups then went on to normal schooling.

Even at age 12, treatment children had a higher IQ than control children and were achieving considerably better, especially in reading, writing and general knowledge. School-based intervention had little impact on changes in IQ; the effects of early intervention were far more powerful.

Other research suggests environmental stimulation actually helps shape the structure of the developing human brain. Children learn more in the first five years of life than at any time thereafter. They learn how to manage their bodies and emotions and how to manipulate the physical world. The cardboard-box kinder creations a parent regards with such amused indulgence might have taught the child mathematical concepts (volume, length, weight, strength), artistic basics (which colors must be mixed to make purple) and social skills (how to ask nicely for the scissors).

Kinder teachers should be paid wages attractive enough to maintain their numbers, especially in rural areas and poorer suburbs where the need for family support and activities outside the home is great.

A nation with 700,000 children below the poverty line is already taking enough risks with its future.

First published in The Age.