Tag Archives: early years education

Comparisons of Pre-School Education Around the World

When working as an early education consultant in the UK my colleagues and I would often look to other countries for inspiration.  We were in awe of the freedom and financial investment in early education in Scandinavia, drew on inspiration from Te Whariki the early childhood curriculum of New Zealand and were in awe of the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy. We recognised the investment in early education in the UK but were aware that there were also many things that could be improved.

On moving to the US, I expected early education to be different but was struck by the  number of commonplace things from UK early education that were seen as new and radical here. Washington State where I live has invested a huge amount of resources to early education but in 2011 only 8% of 4 year olds and 2% of 3 year olds were enrolled in state pre-school programmes (NIEER The State of Pre-school 2011). I now realise that I had much to be grateful for in the UK. My 3-year-old had 15 hours of state funded pre-schooling per week and I could use this flexibly. I knew that I could find a quality pre-school without having to put my hand in my pocket.

While weighing up the different systems I came across a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU),  Starting WellBenchmarking Early Education Across the World. The  EIU was commissioned to produce an index ranking pre-school provision across 45 countries. The Index looks at provision for children aged between 3 and 6, considering availability, affordability and quality of pre-school environments. Alongside the data, experts were interviewed and research reviewed to highlight key issues.

It will not come as a surprise that Finland, Sweden and Norway top the list due to long-term investment and prioritisation of Early Education which is embedded in their culture. What did come as a surprise however is that the UK is in fourth place. A number of factors contribute to the UK’s high-ranking:-

  • A legal right to pre-school education
  • A well-defined curriculum  and health and safety standards
  • parental involvement
  • an environment that ensures children are healthy and well nourished when they enter school.


The US ranks 24th in the Index. There are many quality pre-schools in the US but these are not available or affordable to everyone and the quality of provision is variable. A growing body of evidence suggests that investment in early education reduces costs later in the education system. The success of many European countries lies in the recognition of the value of early education meaning that even during recession, funding is unlikely to be pulled. In countries such as the US where  the government has not yet accepted responsibility for early education, budget deficits lead to cuts in early education funding.


In general the countries that acknowledge the importance of early education are also those with the most affordable pre-schools. Chile(20th in the index) is a lower-income country yet 85 % of 3 year olds and 90% of 4 year-olds attend a pre-school of some kind. Public pre-school provision is free.  The funding has been put into providing provision but as yet has not been assigned to quality.  Teachers are not well qualified and there are no quality guidelines which drags the country down in the index.


The counties that rate highest in quality are those that pay the highest salaries and recruit the most highly qualified teachers. The other factor defining quality is the availability of well-defined guidelines and mechanisms for monitoring and supporting these, Finland, France, Sweden, New Zealand and the UK score highest on these points. New Zealand’s curriculum Te Whariki is successful because it embodies the values of its country and culture, many countries use it as a benchmark when designing their own curriculum. High performing countries in this measure also recognise the importance of Parental engagement. Belgium scores highly based on its statutory responsibility to work with parents and children and offer parenting programmes and support.

Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators is an annual international comparison of education. The report states that whereas patterns of enrolment for primary and secondary education are similar  throughout the OECD, there is significant variation in early childhood education programmes. 79% of 4 year olds in OECD countries and 83% of those in the European Union are enrolled in early education programmes, this ranges from 95% in the UK, New Zealand, Norway and France to less than 60% in Australia, Canada, Brazil and Greece. OECD research found that demand for early childhood education for children aged 3 and under far outstripped supply. The research backs up findings in the Economist’s study that the absence of public funding leads to a greater risk of  variable quality or makes it only affordable to affluent families. In most European countries universal education for 3 to 6 year olds is generally accepted, in most of these countries early education is free and provided in school.

I am still coming to terms with living in a country where pre-school is a luxury for affluent parents rather than  a right for all children. There are many noteworthy programmes for the most needy children but a huge void for any families in the middle. There has been a lot of change in UK early education during the last 5 years and that has lead to a level of unease amongst professionals. Research like the above is sobering and helps me to realise how far we have come.

Who touched your life when you were a child? – Michael Morpurgo’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture

I have finally managed to watch Michael Morpurgo’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture.  How refreshing to hear someone from outside of the world of Education recognising how undervalued the Early Years profession is.  The lack of financial reward and status means that many of the UK’s brightest individuals are discouraged from entering the Early Years profession.  Working with our youngest children is one of the most important occupations of all, as Morpurgo put it

‘a pound spent in the early years can save ten pounds later’

Thank goodness some of us care enough not to desert the profession.

The lecture also decried the target driven education system we have in this country.  When everything relies upon targets and league tables it is easy to forget about the individuality of each child and how their needs can be met.  Morpurgo explained how  in New Zealand children enter school on their 5th birthday, thus allowing teachers time to get to know each child individually , rather than having a class of 30 all arriving at once. Also in Finland, which comes 2nd in the OECD World Education rankings, children do not start school until they are 7 years old.   With an education system built on targets and children starting school at such a young age we are setting our children up for failure.  No wonder we  keep seeing headlines about how boys are failing to read.

Morpurgo argues that the most important part of a child’s education is building trusting relationships, focusing on the unique qualities of each child. When teachers and adults are passionate about a subject, be it reading, music, sport or science they enthuse children to enjoy those things too.  This reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s book ‘The Element’.  In this he talks about how each of us have something that we excel at , that we enjoy and is at the core of our very being.  Many of these things are discovered by perceptive and enthusiastic adults when we are children, others of us do not find our ‘element ‘ till much later in life, if at all.

There are a number of people who helped me to find a passion.  My mother read me books, took me to the library and showed me that books were special, instilling in me a love for reading.  The primary school teachers who first put me on the stage in school shows and sowed the seeds for a love of performing and my secondary school English teacher who recognised my talent for writing and called me her ‘shining star’ helped me to believe that I could.

It also made me think of another thought I had earlier in the day as I taught my eldest daughter to play clock patience.  I thought about all the things my grandfather taught me to do when I was young.  Not only clock patience, but how to make a paper hat and paper aeroplane, how to play pick up sticks and two little dickie birds with pieces of paper on your fingers – things that I hope I remember well enough to pass down.

Working in Early Years Education I am sure that we touch children’s lives in many ways, with the experiences we give them, through listening to them and sharing their worlds and understanding their needs.  In some ways it’s a bit sad that few of the children we teach will remember the influence we had on their lives, they wont cite us as someone who touched their life, but I’m pretty certain we did.

For a full transcript of the Dimbleby Lecture    http://www.michaelmorpurgo.com/news/read-michaels-dimbleby-lectur/


I see and I forget, I hear and I remember,I do and I understand.



The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.

Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play.  I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood.  Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal.  Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings).  In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping  to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self.  Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.

As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game.  How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?

I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg.  We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time.  Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing?  It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.826egg

I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play.  If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia,  there is one thing that sets them apart.  The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder.  We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them.  Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.

In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia  projects are based around what the children say and do.  They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience .  A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play.  In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important.  It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.

In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next.  I believe therefore that the proverb should be

I see and I forget

I hear and I remember

I do and with reflection I understand.

For further information on Jenny Mosley’s work  http://www.circle-time.co.uk

For further information regarding the schools of Reggio Emilia  http://www.sightlines-initiative.com/


Dear Mother Goose

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My 2-year-old has discovered a new favourite book – ‘Dear Mother Goose’ by Michael Rosen and Nick Sharratt.

This has a new and interesting way of introducing traditional nursery rhymes.  A variety of nursery rhyme characters write to mother goose to see if she can help with problems that happen to them every day.  Little Miss Muffet for example asks how she can stop a spider appearing when she eats her curds and whey.  Each letter has a flap with the appropriate nursery rhyme on the reverse and a picture flap page opposite  illustrated with the problem and solution.

Within a few weeks my 2-year-old has learned all the nursery rhymes and has even taken to singing and recording them into a microphone (but that’s another story).

The book is a decent size so would be good for group reading in a nursery or pre-school.

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