Primary Concern

As a new year of reception children start school, Lianne Kolirin asks whether five – or in many cases four – is too young to start in formal education.

A child’s first day at school is a momentous occasion for the prospective pupil and you the parent too. Your heart swells with pride as you snap away on your camera, then wave goodbye at the school gates.

But at the same time, the sight of your little one drowning in their brand new uniform and being shepherded away by virtual strangers has left you rather emotional. Can your baby really be ready for full-time formal education?

If the above rings true, then you are not alone. Generations of British parents have long been asking the same question – are our children starting school too young?

Compulsory education starts at five in England, Wales and Scotland. Yet in reality the vast majority of children are four on their first day – with those born in August having just celebrated their birthdays. In Northern Ireland school starts at four, while children in Malta, the Netherlands and Australia also begin at five.

However, overall we are largely outnumbered. Most European countries, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland, send their children off to school at six, while others like Sweden, Finland and Bulgaria wait until seven. Beyond Europe, most other countries also opt for six or seven as a sensible starting point.

The 1870 Education Act introduced the compulsory school age of five, largely due to Victorian child protection issues. In theory, being in school meant children were protected from exploitation and unhealthy living conditions. Politicians were also keen to appease employers – the earlier children started, the earlier they could join the workforce.

In 2009 The Cambridge Primary Review (CPR), the most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education for 40 years, published its findings. A highly experienced body of teachers, academics and other educationalists recommended an overhaul of the system, including raising the entry level to six. They argued that 21st Century children were being failed by a system designed to tackle 19th Century problems.

The authors wrote, “We take for granted the primacy of the 3Rs, the range of subjects and the class-teacher system, but these are the legacy of the Victorian elementary school, devised to prepare the poor for their ‘station’ in life.” CPR director Professor Robin Alexander says, “The issue addressed by the Cambridge Primary Review was not the school starting age, but the kind of educational experience which is developmentally appropriate for children at different ages.”

“On that basis, and looking at what happens in other countries, the Review recommended that the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) be extended upwards to age six so as to give children the best possible foundation for the more formal school curriculum.”
September sees the introduction of significant changes to the EYFS, but they do not include raising the entry level.

Current literacy requirements state that five-year-olds should use written language in their play and learning and begin to form simple sentences. Similar targets exist for numeracy. Many professionals feel pushing under-fives into that level of education prematurely can be ineffective and even counter-productive.

Some go further, arguing that it damages children – especially the bright ones. Earlier this year a major US study revealed that children’s “run-away intellect” actually benefited from being slowed down in the early years, allowing them to develop naturally. It suggested that many bright children grow up in an “intellectually unbalanced way”, suffering lifelong negative health effects.

Reading and writing are not the only issues. A survey carried out by Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers reported a rise in the number of children starting school without being properly toilet trained. It also highlighted the fact that many children also struggle with basic skills like putting on their coats and getting changed for PE.

Critics of the current system feel there is a tacit belief among lawmakers that starting at five ‘never did us any harm’. On the other hand, the proponents say the earlier you start school, the more solid and comprehensive an education you get.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said, “It is vital that all children get a thorough grounding in the basics from an early age – the three Rs form the bedrock of education. There is a wealth of international evidence which shows how much each additional month of education benefits a child’s development and achievement by age 11.”

“The new EYFS, starting this September, focuses on getting all children ready for education at age five and increasing their attainment.”

But this argument is rebuffed by Early Childhood Action, a group set up last year by 50 professionals in fields related to early childhood. Concerned about the increasing hot-housing of children, they want more appropriate provision of play-based learning.

Among the founder members and signatories was Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and a leading authority on teaching literacy. She argues that, “despite 20 years of curriculum initiatives, British children still lag behind in international surveys of literacy and numeracy”.

“Elsewhere the starting age is at least six. Indeed, in Finland, where literacy standards are the best in the world, it’s seven,” she says.

“In these countries, children follow a ‘kindergarten curriculum’ from the age of three. The idea is to develop their language, attention and social skills, creating firm foundations for successful formal education.”

“It’s time we recognised that too much too soon isn’t working. To give our under-sevens the best chance of growing up bright, balanced and literate we must stop trying to fast-forward their education. They need time to grow, talk, sing, listen to stories and enjoy that most vital ingredient of a good childhood – play.”

That ethos is firmly held by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. Dating back to the 1920s, the international schools movement was set up by Austrian academic Rudolf Steiner. Here in the UK there are 35 Steiner schools, though there are hundreds across Europe. Crucially, the schools do not introduce formal desk-based learning until after six.

Spokesman Alan Swindell explains, “When children turn six their enthusiasm for learning is very different. They are really ready to dive into it and get stuck into reading and writing. As far as possible, we try and teach things through activity and imagination.”

“Up until six they will be in early years or kindergarten and it isn’t directed play, but free play. They are in a structured and very homely environment. If a child is interested in reading and books, that’s fine. We don’t suppress it, but nor do we need to structure it into their day.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum there are those who feel we wait too long to introduce reading. K L Wong is the founder of which creates early learning products that promote reading in toddlers and even babies.

KL started teaching his daughter to read at just nine months and was amazed by the results.

“By leaving it until the child is four, five or beyond, you have missed the period when the child is the most hungry to learn: 0-3. By that time, learning skills such as reading are competing with many other developing interests (such as riding a bike) which the child would not have had as a toddler. The later you leave it, the more competing interests will appear.”

While certainly not advocating that parents teach their babies to read, many independent schools are confident the children they take on are more than ready for school.

Caroline Gerstein is the deputy head of the junior school at North London Collegiate School, an independent girls’ school in north London which consistently ranks among the best in the country.

She says, “Children are ready at different times and the same experience isn’t right for every child. However, there’s a difference between independent selective schools and other schools because we select children who are ready for school.”

“When we assess them we don’t expect them to read or write. What we are really interested in are curious learners.”

She adds, “Our reception classes are incredibly nurturing and they learn through a mixture of play and experience, inside and outside the classroom. Half the time they are having so much fun that they aren’t aware they are actually learning.”