The young mind is wonderfully impressionable, capable of learning and absorbing new knowledge with relative ease. That's why there is a need for good kindergartens, says Kathy Sylva, a professor of educational psychology at Oxford University.
Having served as lead researcher on Britain's Effective Preschool and Primary Education (EPPE) project, the first major study to examine the effectiveness of early years education in the country, Sylva is a staunch supporter of high-quality learning for preschoolers.
Although Hong Kong cannot copy the British model, she believes the city can draw some important lessons from the EPPE study. One message that resonates is the importance of having quality kindergarten education and the significant role that parents play in providing the right learning environment at home.
Sylva says the research showed that children, despite coming from similar family backgrounds, fared differently based on environment. Youngsters with engaged, caring parents who invested more time and energy with their children often performed better in school and in life. "What you do is more important than who you are," says Sylva.
The findings confirm that in today's busy world, many parents seem unable to spend sufficient time with their children.
Also a specialist adviser to the British parliament's Education Select Committee from 2000 to 2009, Sylva was here to speak at a seminar organised by Yew Chung Community College and the Pacific Early Childhood Education Research Association.
The EPPE project, which tracked children's development from kindergarten to post-compulsory education, was based on a sample of 3,000 youngsters in Britain.
Researchers first assessed the children's intellectual and behavioural development at the start of kindergarten, around the age of three.
Their progress was monitored until they entered school around five years old, and then at key points (aged six, seven, 10, 11 and 14) until they entered secondary school. Following the youngsters through their final year of compulsory schooling, researchers went on to track their educational, training and employment choices.
It also collected a wide range of information on the children, their parents, home environments and their preschool settings.
"The study put a great deal of emphasis on parents and lifestyles, and collected data on … the quality of home learning environment through interviews with parents and home visits," Sylva explains.
The impact of early education depends on the quality of the school but there's no denying that it is an important first step to towards maximising the students' learning capabilities.
The EPPE study was first conceived in 1997 to chart the contribution of preschool to children's cognitive and social development. The British government recognised the impact of social disadvantage on youngsters' future and was keen to break this cycle of deficiency in which poor children received poor public services.
The study triggered a transformation of services for youth and families in Britain. In 1998, all four-year-olds were given a free kindergarten place and this was extended to three-year-olds in 2004. In general, these measures have helped raise education standards, expand childcare and improve training for teachers, Sylva says.
Sylva believes staff qualifications are another important component in improving children's early education and having a positive impact on their attainment, progress and development.
"Good conditions of service are important to attract qualified talent, which means resources are of the utmost importance when it comes to raising staff qualifications," she says.
Another challenge is to free children from the straitjacket of the exam treadmill - a predicament that Hong Kong students endure because of the city's exam-oriented academic system.
Hong Kong scores relatively highly in the region in terms of preschool education, Sylva notes. However, the better kindergartens here are mostly privately funded because government support for kindergartens is primarily through its voucher scheme that carries many restrictions, she adds.
"In Asia, I believe Hong Kong is one of the elite centres of early childhood education. And the Yew Chung Education Foundation has contributed enormously in this regard," she says.
Yew Chung's community college is credited as stepping up the skills and training of kindergarten teachers, a profession that some tend to belittle.
But even with all the prerequisites in place, Sylva says a good education would not be complete without focusing on character-building. And this means adults have to be good role models. "Children learn by example as they pick up what we do. So we must practise what we preach," she says.