My 4-year-old is due to start school this September. The idea fills me with dread. The idea of other adults spending more time than I can with my child when he is still so young, along with all the pressure that comes with the expectations regarding his behaviour and abilities is something I am having serious difficulty with. My child’s nursery often report to me on my child’s inability to sit still during ‘carpet time’. – Well, that would be because he’s a 4-year-old boy. So why do we expect him to? Why try to force him to do something he’s clearly not ready to do? At an information evening for new parents last night we were urged to ensure our children can cope with their own zips, buttons, toilet visits etc. So the pressure begins now, at home.
So, why do we start our children at school so early in this country?
In a Primary Review Research Briefing, researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research conclude, “There is little evidence to support common-sense assumptions that spending longer in primary schools …results in higher attainment.”
The majority of other European Countries have a school starting age of six. Yet reports show that children in these countries do just as well, and usually better, than UK children. Surely this fact alone speaks for itself? One argument put forward in the UK is that starting children at a younger age creates a level playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the research doesn’t qualify this argument. If anything it shows that the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and more advantaged children only continues to grow through their school years.
Another, more believable theory, put forward in the Cambridge Primary Review, is that there are historical reasons for the young starting age that are more to do with the convenience to our society than any benefit to the children. This seems plausible given that most parents I speak to simply think of school in terms of a reduction in their childcare costs, and never stop to question the wisdom of packing our children off to school so early.
But then, why question the wisdom when really you have no choice in the matter? Any supposed choices we have are fraught with problems. Legally, children in the UK do not have to attend full-time school until the term after they turn five. This means summer born children, often a concern as being disadvantaged as the younger in their school year, can legally be held back a year if their parents so choose. However, the few people who actually look into this option will find that this would mean that when their child starts school they would go straight into year 1, simply missing the reception year, and being forced to mix as the newcomer in an already established class of children.
Another little known option is that of sending your child to school part-time until they reach the legal age, an option I am considering for my January born child as a way of keeping him out of full-time school for a little longer; until after next Easter. Yet again, as I am fairly certain I will be the only parent availing myself of this option, this raises various concerns around singling my child out, making him feel different, and disrupting his ability to fit in with his peer groups.
Many parents try to reassure me, and perhaps themselves, speaking of their child’s love of being with other children in a stimulating environment. Yet my child is being provided with all this now, for an appropriate 3 hours a day in an appropriate environment – pre-school. I have yet to read or hear a convincing argument to suggest that he is ready to enter a more formal learning environment for more than double the number of hours per week. Every instinct I have is telling me he is not ready.
It’s time the government starting taking the reports, research and evidence seriously and started looking at the more successful educational systems in other European countries.