Fiona Spellman, Chief Executive of SHINE, examines if early intervention holds the key to educational success

Research consistently shows that the attainment gap between children from low income homes and their wealthier peers begins right from their earliest years. According to a study by the University of Newcastle in 2017, for example, low vocabulary skills at the age of 4 are associated not only with lower adult literacy at 34 years but also with poor mental health and employability outcomes. Likewise, research quoted in Jean Gross’s excellent book ‘Time to Talk’ suggests that language at the age of three is a key element in a composite ‘brain health’ measure that accurately predicts which individuals will be of very high cost to society 35 years later. Unless we provide additional support to these children early on, there is a very real danger that they will never catch up.

Based on this research, many educationalists, including the charity I lead, SHINE, have argued that intervening early is the best way to help children maximise their chances of educational success. We tend to conceptualise learning as happening from the age of 0 to 18, after which students leave school and enter the workforce, equipped with the academic and interpersonal skills they need to succeed. According to this logic, the purpose of education is to give all children the best possible chances to succeed whilst they are at school, because the costs of intervening once they leave are far greater and the chances of success far lower.

I listened to a brilliant TED talk by Lara Boyd this week which provided real challenge to this view. Lara challenges an important assumption which many education professionals hold dear – namely, that learning happens best during childhood. Lara’s video, and the research on which it is based, contests this line of thinking by debunking an important myth. She concludes that in fact, learning takes place throughout our lives, and the best driver of learning is not our age but our behaviour. Thanks to something called ‘neuroplasticity’, the more effectively we practice and repeat new learning, the better our brains will develop and grow – and this isn’t specific to age. Even better, increased difficulty or struggle during practice actually leads to more learning and greater structural change in the brain, meaning that the learning gains for people who initially find something difficult are actually greater than for those who master learning more quickly.

For me, the implications of this are profound. Rather than seeking quick fix interventions to address specific gaps in children’s learning, perhaps we should be thinking instead of ways to improve their underlying learning behaviours. Rather than seeing 0-18 as the phase where knowledge and learning is best absorbed, perhaps we should think of it instead as an important preparatory phase in a much bigger journey of education through life.

One great example of this philosophy in action is HegartyMaths – a programme which SHINE is incredibly proud to have supports from its inception. HegartyMaths gives students the opportunity to access unlimited, high quality maths teaching online whatever their backgrounds or starting points. HegartyMaths isn’t just about extra help in the run up to a particular exam or test, but a way of students embedding great habits as learners for the future.

There is no doubt that the attainment gap emerges early in education and that children from disadvantaged backgrounds need the right interventions to help address this right from the offset. However, we also need to build the right learning behaviours to avoid gaps re-emerging later down the line. In education as in life, success comes from a combination of hard work and repeated practice. We must help our young people to master these behaviours if we are to truly change their lives for the better.

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