Growing independence: Summary of key findings from the Competent Learners at 14 Project

Publication Details

The Competent Children, Competent Learners project is funded by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). It is a longitudinal study which focuses on a group of about 500 students from the greater Wellington region (Wellington, Hutt, Kapiti, Wairarapa).

Author(s): Janet Rivers, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Researchers: Cathy Wylie (Chief Researcher), Edith Hodgen, Hilary Ferral, Jean Thompson, Rachel Dingle and Rose Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: March 2006

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Executive Summary

It charts the development of the students' competence in mathematics, literacy, and logical problem-solving and their competence in social and communication skills. It also explores the students' home and education experiences to find out which may account for differences in patterns of development and performance in these competencies.

The project started in 1993, when the students were nearly five years old and in early childhood education. At that time, there were some overseas studies showing that early childhood education appeared to benefit children, but no comprehensive New Zealand research. The studies paid attention to aspects of the quality of the provision, such as adult:child ratios, group size and staff qualifications. Since then, there has been more research into the contribution of early childhood education, providing an increasingly robust understanding of the relationship between early childhood education experience and children's development. The Competent Children, Competent Learners project makes a useful contribution to this field of research because it is one of the few longitudinal studies to have followed its participants into adolescence.

Six phases of the study have now been completed – the first when the students were near age 5, the next when they were at age 6, and at two yearly intervals since then (ages 8, 10, 12 and 14). In 2005, data were collected on the students at 16 years.

This summary presents the key findings from the five research reports completed for age 14. This phase looked at the effects on performance of early childhood education, transition to secondary school, and the young people's experiences at age 14 in five areas (leisure, relationships with peers, interactions with parents, their values, and their engagement in school and learning).

Further reports and articles from the age-14 phase are scheduled to be released later in 2006 (please refer to the 'Downloads/Links' inset box, top right, for the link to the 'Competent Children, Competent Learners' publications).

Key Findings

  • It is important to establish solid early foundations of learning before children start school, especially in the use of language, symbols and patterns. Children with high performance early on are likely to perform well later on. Early low performers are likely to have low performance later on.
  • However, none of the competency levels, engagement or behaviour of the 14-year-olds was completely predictable. Individual children's performance levels can and do change over time and current performance levels at any one time should not be regarded as fixed.
  • A strong focus on reading and mathematics in the early years of primary school is particularly important for those who may have had fewer experiences involving the use of language, symbols and patterns in their pre-school years. However, this should not be at the expense of other enriching activities.
  • Social characteristics (e.g. maternal qualifications or family income) account for some of the difference in young people's scores but do not account for most of it.
  • Some aspects of early childhood education still have associations with performance at age 14, nine years later. In particular, the quality of staff–child interactions, having an environment that has many books and printed materials, length of early childhood education and starting age, and the make-up of the centre in terms of the socio-economic backgrounds of the children who attend are all important.
  • There is no evidence that transition to secondary school negatively affects students' levels of performance. Students' earlier performance and engagement in school carry more weight in performance levels at age 14 than the transition to secondary school itself. The exception is that taking a longer time to settle into secondary school has a negative association with confidence.
  • Performance levels do change at age 14, with changes just as likely to be up as down.
  • Students from low income families are more at risk of lower performance than other groups, and improving the achievement of these students is a key challenge for educators.
  • Enjoyment of reading is a key indicator for engagement in learning and for competency levels at age 14.
  • At age 14, most of the young people in the sample have positive and valued relationships with family and friends, are engaged with school and learning, and have out-of-school activities they enjoy.
  • Students at 14 who are engaged in school and learning are likely to be in positive learning environments where there is good feedback from teachers, relevant teaching, challenging work and a focus on learning at the students' pace.
  • There are connections over time between what is happening at school and what is happening at home. For example, those who show signs of disengagement with school are also likely to experience family pressure, engage in risky behaviour, and not have interests that engage them outside of school.

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