Does primary schooling have long-term effects on a child's academic progress in later life?


Last September, my friend's husband got a highly coveted well-paying job in Dubai. She was about to pack her bags, when she and her husband decided that their pre-school going son would not respond well to this sudden change in his environment, and that it was in the best interests of their child if he were to finish his school year in the same school. Thus they decided that her husband would go to Dubai and start working, and my friend and their son would join him in the next academic year.

Another friend of ours found it very amusing that this decision was made factoring in the pre-school education needs of a three-year-old. "He is three! All he's doing is going to school for barely two hours and playing! I fail to see how continuity in who teaches him to babble will affect him in the long term! Anyone can teach him how to sing the English alphabet and nursery rhymes!"

We may be dismissive about the role of early schooling in our children's academic progress and later successes, but research shows that there are significant benefits to good quality early schooling. The Effective Provision of Pre School Education Project, a study by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London found that "high quality pre schooling is related to better intellectual and social/behavioural development for children." Early schooling may then have much more long term benefits and consequences than we currently understand, this study reveals. In fact, attending a good quality pre-school and primary school may have a greater impact on a child's life than their gender or family background, which are popularly understood to be factors that affect your social location and opportunities to be successful.

Why preschool and primary school are important in a child's development

Pink Floyd's 1979 song "Another Brick in the Wall" argues that we do not need the brand of dark sarcasm, chalk-throwing, punishment and hard discipline that schools tend to impart. With the education industry flourishing in India, an increasing number of parents are now opting for schools that offer non-traditional ways of teaching and learning, according to this India Today article. They don't want their children to be just another brick in the wall, or to follow conventional paths to success, but want them to achieve their full potential and do whatever makes them happy.

Turns out, good quality preschool and primary education can offer just that. The quality of teaching at the primary level affects both the social behaviour as well as the intellectual development of the child, according to this paper published by the Institute of Education, University of London researchers.

The study also found that the quality of preschool and primary school has a greater impact on the child's development than other factors, such as gender or social background.

Social skills such as listening to others, following directions, working well in a team, acting responsibly and showing kindness to others, managing anger, etc. are also developed in school, and research shows that these influence academic achievements in later life. When conflict arises among preschool and primary children, it is crucial that the teachers spot these problem behaviours and intervene to ensure that the negative behaviour is weeded out, and prosocial skills are inculcated in their students.

What is ‘quality' preschool and primary education?

As noted by Aarti Dhar in this article published by The India Saga, the quality of preschool education in India is not up to the mark. A UNICEF report titled ‘India early education impact study (2011-2016)' published after a longitudinal study in both government and private preschools found that on average, children's school readiness levels were below expected levels at age 5.

In a country that is known for its educational institutions, where are our preschool educationists faltering? The unstructured nature of preschool education in India leaves a lot to the imagination and effort and interest of the teachers and schools. But given the fact that preschool teachers have barely 2 hours to achieve several tasks in the day, ironing out the non-teaching activities that suck up the teacher's time and mental strength, such as attendance-taking and note-taking, can leave more time for teaching, creating art, and observing the behaviour of students and developing bonds with them.

The quality indicators used in The Effective Provision of Pre School Education Project include warm relationships with students, trained teachers as managers, and a good proportion of trained teachers on the staff. These seem simple enough for schools to achieve, but we must not underestimate the effects of student--teacher ratios and the pressure exerted by non-teaching tasks on teachers.

"Playtime" in pre-primary schools is actually serious work

"The job of nursery and kindergarten education is to help fours and fives flourish—not to reform them; to help parents understand their children; to spot the children who need special help in time. The quality of living is important NOW when the children are four and five. The appeal for good education has to be to our conscience and to the depth of our sense of caring. If we don't care, we won't act."

~ James L. Hymes Jr in his paper "The importance of pre primary education"

Clapping hands, touching fingers, pasting things on paper may seem like frivolous activities to adults, but these seemingly simple tasks enhance the fine motor skills of preschool children. Fine motor skills are the abilities we develop to move the small muscles in our hands and wrists. This is why playing with lego blocks isn't all about playing, but about imparting essential fine motor and spatial skills. These skills are observed and documented in kindergarten, but the Indian school system does not document these as a part of primary schooling. Would continuing to document these significantly alter the aptitude of the preschool students in later life, equipping them to take up professions that require fine motor skills?