Why stage not age?
International surveys of achievement often concentrate on a particular age, but it is well known that the number of years of schooling is important to children’s development. In setting up a study of children at the start of their school careers, a key decision is whether the focus should be on age or stage. There are pros and cons to both these approaches.
If we were to assess representative samples of children aged four years and then follow up them up one year later in a set of countries, this would provide valuable data for looking backwards in general terms at policies in the early years. It would also provide useful comparative data on the progress made by children between the ages of four and five years. However, in most countries, pre-school provision is characterised by a variety of different institutional arrangements; it would be difficult to identify the effectiveness of any particular type. At the one-year-on follow up, some children will be in institutions including schools but some would still not be; the results would therefore confound maturation with educational provision and not necessarily reflect the major impact on children’s progress of their first year in school.
It is evident from a number of studies that children’s academic progress is closely associated to schooling. The number of years in schooling has been shown to be more important than age in determining reading levels and children’s development against other cognitive measures (Alexander, J.R.M. and Martin, F. (2004). The end of the reading age: Grade and age differences in early schooling. Journal of School Psychology, 42(5), 403-415; de Lemos, M. and Wright, J. (1997). Age and stages: A guide to class nomenclature. Australian Council for Education Research and New Zealand Council for Educational Research).
It is also clear that the teacher is a key factor in the progress made by children. This is particularly important in the first year of school, when children tend make more progress in relative terms than in any other year of their education (Tymms, P., Jones, P., Albone, S. and Henderson, B. (2009). The first seven years at school. Educational Assessment and Evaluation Accountability, 21, 67-80.
An alternative approach to based on when children start school. Children in different countries might be as young as four or as old as seven years when they start formal schooling, although in most countries they start between ages five and six years. For the purposes of this study, we propose to define it as the point at which all or nearly all children are attending an educational institution on a daily basis where they will learn to read (even when this is not the official statutory school starting age). This definition thus caters both for systems in which parents overwhelmingly opt to send their children to school before the statutory school starting age, such as the UK, and for those, such as Russia or Scandinavian countries, where the school starting age is much later, but where nearly all children attend a pre-school institution from the age of five or six years.
Further, since the institution and the teacher are of fundamental importance, it makes considerable sense to look at how school and teacher effects vary within and across countries, by carrying out the initial assessment at the start of children’s first year in school, and the follow up assessment at the end of that year.
In practical terms, it is much easier logistically to assess within one school and then one year later to pick up those same children in that school. Further, a school based assessment makes it much easier to collect data about the schools and their approaches as part of the survey. There is an additional key reason for collecting data from schools rather than homes: some of the most important data about children’s social, emotional and personal development needs ratings that come from observation over protracted periods.