The school-starting age is a hot topic among parents, including myself as I have a 3 year old son, but what are the long-term outcomes when some children begin as young as four while in other countries children can’t start until they are seven? When exactly should children start school?
The age at which children compulsorily begin their formal education has become a more and more controversial topic in Britain over the past few decades. By law, children are required to start school from the September following their fifth birthday, or earlier. However, a trend has developed whereby the ‘vast majority’ of children are beginning school in ‘Reception’ class at the age of four. (Reception is the final year of early childhood education and a precursor to Year 1, as highlighted in the following table).
Most children in Britain start school just before their fifth birthday or during the Academic Year that they are going to be five. This works very well for the children who are almost five, born in the earlier part of the Academic Year, but for some of the Summer born children – May, June, July and August – who are only just four, it can be very hard. So much so that a three year old whose mother insisted he was too young to start school has been allowed to remain at nursery for another year.
The compulsory school-starting age for children in Britain is one of the lowest in Europe. For example, according to World Bank data, children in Canada, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Spain begin at six. Children in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary, Estonia and China begin even later, at seven. Consistently strong performances on international tests (such as those conducted by PISA) by some of these countries are often cited by those who advocate a later school-starting age. In the United States, education is compulsory from the age of six, although it is five in several US states. In New Zealand, many children begin school on their fifth birthday whereas in Australia most children do not start full-time at schools until they are six years old. Interestingly, children in Switzerland and Scandinavia do not start school until they are seven years old, and yet still come out with the same if not better results than British children. Based on this there has been increasing amounts of research into the effect of the school starting age on educational, emotional and social outcomes in recent years.
There is a growing consensus from educational researchers that delaying the start of formal ‘schooling’ in Britain from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being) is profoundly holistically beneficially. Having a school starting age of six or seven ensures that children are given the space and time to develop all their neuro-physiological, social and emotional capacities. Surely they must also be allowed to develop their innate theory-building and meaning-making capacities, giving them the confidence to explore their environment in a way that has real meaning and context for them? The evidence shows that the longer young children can spend in holistic, playful and creatively focused environments, the more likely they are to develop happily and healthily. This is particularly true for the summer-born and the most disadvantaged children, as it gives them longer to mature developmentally.
However, not everybody agrees. Michael Wilshaw, the Head of OfSTED, argues that children benefit from being exposed to schooling from as young as two, because it prepares them more fully for the rigours of the classroom. I think this says more about him and his schooling than me and mine though!
The recent ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ campaign by the Save Childhood movement made headlines last year with a letter to the education secretary calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. One of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread suggested that children needed more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.
In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start at age four until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).
It is interesting that the two best countries in the world in terms of primary education (based on standardised testing) are South Korea and Finland, despite having completely different educational systems. However, both countries of have later school starting ages than in Britain. South Korea’s primary education is highly structured, emphasising memorisation, long hours and lots of homework. Finland, on the other hand, has a much less structured system, which emphasises critical thinking, curiosity and real world applications. The constant in countries with the best education is that they attract the best and most skilled teachers, usually pay them well, give them a great deal of support and that the children, far more often than not, start school later than they do in Britain. In fact, none of the top 10 countries in terms of best performing education systems have children before the age of six going to school. This (surprisingly) includes countries such as Estonia and Poland, as well as (unsurprisingly) countries such as Finland, Canada, Japan and China.
My own view is that once children go to school, our archaic education system teaches the enthusiasm, creativity and curiosity out of them as standardised tests kick in on a seemingly earlier and earlier basis. The free-spirit of a reception classroom is gradually replaced by uniformity and conformity as children move through the year groups up to Year 6 where they do their SATs. This is not the teachers fault, rather our system that values standardised testing over personal and emotional development, resulting in an increasing number of teenagers developing mental health issues. One of the greatest dangers with the current system, in my opinion, is that we have started measuring children against externally imposed norms and producing a situation where many then fail to meet the desired standards. For example, recently only 52% of four and five-year-olds assessed at the end of the early years foundation stage were judged to have reached a ‘good’ level of development. This will only get worse if further if new SATs are introduced for seven year olds.
I am not saying testing does not have it’s place. Of course it does. But testing for the sake of testing, often to generate data for the sake of generating data is counter-productive and morally wrong. In the same way that I don’t feel that we prepare our primary school children for secondary school very well, I don’t feel that our compulsory age for children to start primary school prepares these children for starting their school life.
So what am I going to do? Well, I am not planning on moving to Finland anytime soon and I’ve ruled out home-schooling from a social interaction point of view so the nearest local primary school is ‘Plan A’ (with no real ‘Plan B’). It’s a small, traditional church school a mere 10 minute walk from our house so seems ideal. There is a single form entry of 30 children each year and the foundation key stage followed in the first two years is not the worst curriculum I’ve ever seen. My key role is to get as involved with the school as much as possible, possibly as a parent governor, and to fan the flames of my little boy’s creativity and curiosity for as long as I possibly can.