Unravelling Upstart

Upstart make many misleading claims, but their statements tend to rely on false assumptions, selective use of research, and weak or isolated research studies.

1. Academic results achieved by countries such as Finland are due to their play-based teaching and later school-starting ages

FALSE. While it is true that many countries such as Finland, Switzerland and Estonia do well in international league tables, there are many reasons behind their success. It is a mistake to conclude that their academic achievements are a direct result of play-based teaching or starting school later.

This assumption, the backbone of the Upstart campaign, is entirely erroneous. There is a much simpler, more basic, reason that explains why these countries are at the top of their game when it comes to reading and literacy: their languages have transparent orthographies. Or, to put it another way: Finnish, German and Estonian (a Uralic language related to Finnish) are all easy languages to learn.

These languages share a shallow orthography and a simple syllabic structure… entirely unlike English which can take up to 2.5 times longer to learn.

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Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies, Seymour, Aro & Erskine

The rate of foundation literacy acquisition is slower by a ratio of about 2.5:1 in English than it is in most European orthographies.

Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies, Seymour, Aro & Erskine

In addition, there are other significant social and cultural factors that help explain Finland’s success, including a more equal society, low levels of child poverty, and involved and engaged parents who are educated to a high level.

2. Starting school or ‘formal’ teaching too early damages children and leads to ‘social, emotional and mental health problems’

FALSE. This claim is based upon Success by Empowerment: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27 (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1993), a problematic, poor quality and infamous research study*. Indeed, its findings were subsequently disconfirmed.

These results disconfirmed the conclusion of Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner (1986b) that direct instruction was linked to higher rates of juvenile delinquency and other social differences.

Early Intervention Curricula and Subsequent Adolescent Social Development: A Longitudinal Examination (Mills, Cole, Jenkins, & Dale, 2002)

Furthermore, another study and one of the largest educational experiments of its kind, Project Follow Through, assigned 9000 children to nine different early childhood programmes. It showed that disadvantaged children who received Direct Instruction had significantly higher academic achievement than students in any of the other programs. They also had higher self esteem and self-confidence.

Children who received the Perry High/Scope curriculum (from the Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner paper) performed significantly worse, coming second last in the graph below. (Cognitive Curriculum)

Project Follow Through (1967-1977) ‘History’s Largest Educational Experiment’ Findings

Students who received Direct Instruction had significantly higher academic achievement than students in any of the other programs. They also had higher self esteem and self-confidence. 

No other program had results that approached the positive impact of Direct Instruction. Subsequent research found that the DI students continued to outperform their peers and were more likely to finish high school and pursue higher education. 

national institute for direct instruction

Upstart conveniently fail to mention this ground-breaking project or its results, stating that:

Longitudinal research of this kind is difficult to conduct so there aren’t many examples. But, to our knowledge, every study ever conducted has shown that the academic advantages of an early start ‘wash out’ by the teenage years, while the social and emotional disadvantages linger on indefinitely.

Upstart Scotland ‘The Evidence’

Upstart play on our greatest fears for the future of our children. They present a selective picture of questionable research, which influences and misleads well-intentioned adults whose opinions and subsequent decisions will ultimately damage the life chances and choices of the most disadvantaged children in Scotland.

The benefits of being literate and being able to read for pleasure and for learning never ‘wash out’. Literacy is the gift that keeps giving.

It is well-documented that illiteracy and reading failure put children at an increased risk of anxiety and mental health issues in childhood and psychiatric disorders and criminality later in life.

*For an in-depth look at the issues with The High/Scope Perry study click here.

3. There is no educational advantage to an early start

FALSE. Being able to read is the most significant educational advantage, and the benefits begin immediately.

Children who crack the spelling-to-sound code early thus have important positive feedback effects. Such feedback effects appear to be potent sources of individual differences in academic achievement.(Walberg, Strykowski, Rovai, & Hung, 1984)

While oral language skills contribute to early reading success, so too, early reading success loops back to oral language skills.

Children need to be exposed to more complex vocabulary and syntactic structures than typical everyday conversation affords, so those who do master reading early, have a lasting edge over those who do not.

This is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect in early reading.

Professor Pamela snow
4. A later start would ‘close the attainment gap’ and ‘gender gap’

FALSE. Just as an early start to reading provides a lasting advantage, a later start would deepen inequalities. Every day that the teaching of reading is delayed, the gap between the readers and the non-readers is getting bigger.

A kindergarten stage that waits to introduce reading, allowing some children to forge ahead when they show an interest, would actively grow the attainment gap—not close it. The difference of around 18 months at the start of Primary 1 between the least and the most disadvantaged children, would now be a chasm of 2-3 years.

In addition, research shows that where children are taught to read through systematic synthetic phonics there is no attainment or gender gap. All children, regardless of background or circumstances, can succeed at reading and the boys can do just as well as the girls.

Teaching every child to read at the same time levels the playing field and is the most effective way to ensure equality in the classroom.

A proposal to delay the start of formal education in English speaking countries neglects the fact that the English language has a very complex writing system that inevitably takes a long time to learn. Starting later will just lead to finishing later for most children.

Dr Jennifer buckingham

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