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Should Children Have a Fast-Track Education From Birth?

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Parents in China are now signing up tutors to work with children from birth to age three to help give them a head-start in their education. The early years have been identified by researchers as the weak link in modern education systems, with funding going into formal primary, secondary and tertiary learning. But get the first few years of education right, they say, and children will be on course for top grades, top university, top career.

Excessive tiger parenting? A blight on normal childhood? That really depends on your view of how far structure and tuition affects children's enjoyment of their daily life, and what the benefits might be longer-term.

The Lions Education programme was recently launched in Guangzhou with British expertise - involving insights from the independent school sector here as well as Christine Gilbert, the former head of Ofsted - and is expected to grow exponentially to meet the demand among wealthy Chinese families for an advantage. Despite the cost of £30,000 a year, the organisers expect there to be 17,000 tutors in homes by 2015.

Huge effort went into the creation of the programme, a Research & Development team of more than 40 professionals were involved over four years at a cost of more than £2.5million. Tutors (each with a degree in Education, Psychology and the Arts) deliver individually tailored activities at a child's home, every morning and afternoon, as well as special training to the child's parents, grandparents (and the nanny) once a month to help them support the process. Regular guidance is given on spatial layout, teaching materials and toys.

The take-off of the Lions Education programme in China signals two developments the UK should be aware of: the heightening of the global trend for attaining higher standards and quality for young people in all forms of education (an idea we're already familiar with). But also it means a fundamental shift in attitudes to the nature of teaching and learning in China. The Lions emphasis is on individual learning and in encouraging greater independence and confidence, a turn away from the large-scale ritualised learning. Countries in the region will never move from their position on the value of hard work getting results, but there is a growing acceptance that rote learning is limiting and can constrain learning. What looks like tiger parenting is therefore more of a move to a Western approach, and that means greater understanding among parents of the value of a British education. Over time, it also means that more local schools in countries like China will be in a position to at least replicate some of the Western approach, removing that area of competitive advantage in the eyes of some parents. Neither system - the individualism or the regimented knowledge factory approach - is perfect in itself, and we can learn from each other. It could be argued, for example, that some of the Eastern discipline may now be needed to stiffen the British offering.

The focus on the value of education and an increasing sense of competition means real potential for this kind of early years offering to come to the UK. It would, of course, polarise views. Some people will be antagonistic to any kinds of formal learning for such young children; others will have a genuine interest in what the potential might be for giving their children an edge. School leaders need to be aware of the changing context, the impact of the development of early years education, and the opportunities this will bring to both integrate and develop new services that meet the evolving needs and demands. Parents need to know what's on the horizon, and that some of their peers may already be considering what early years prep might do for them.