Starting school before the rest of Europe – a head start or a pressured start?

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.


5 Responses to Starting school before the rest of Europe – a head start or a pressured start?

  1. K says:

    The majority of countries which have their school enrolment age set at 6 provide extended maternity benefits and tax breaks till this age. This link gives information regarding how the maternity benefits vary . Unless you intend to bring the UK in line with the European countries which have more favourable benefit and tax systems, I do not see how it would be feasible to increase the school starter age.
    You stated ‘Legally, children in the UK do not have to attend full-time school until the term after they turn five.’ This is not true. In Britain, there has never been a legal obligation for parents to send their children to school. It is perfectly acceptable to home school and teach your child exactly as you wish. There is no legal obligation to follow the national curriculum, nor enter children for exams.
    I disagree that parents are not openly given the information regarding deferring a year or enrolling their child part-time, though can see that we’re a long was from adopting the Scottish ability of entering children into reception the term after their 4th Birthday (if my memory serves me correctly). The information is available to those who feel their children would benefit from it; a quick chat to the school about your concerns would usually provide the option. If not GIYF.
    I can understand the idea that not all children are ready for school at 4, but in reception it is very much child led and tailored to bring them into being comfortable with the setting and type giving an idea of what life in year 1 will be like. I truly believe reception is advantageous to most children in helping them develop the skills they’ll need in their school life and for those that aren’t yet ready, there’s always the option of home schooling, deferring or going part time. We’re actually pretty lucky to have those options.

  2. Jo says:

    You are quite right – it would not be feasible to increase the school starting age without making other major changes. I wish this could happen but fear it never will.

    You rightly point out that home schooling is an option in the UK, however my point is that full-time education is compulsory from the term after a child turns 5, and none of the options available for parents are viable for many. Home schooling because it is a full-time commitment, so not an option for parents who work even part-time.

    Although most parents I have spoken to have been aware of the option to defer, none were aware that part-time attendance was an option, and when I requested this I was met with considerable opposition from the school. Further investigation (since writing this post) led to me being advised that whilst a school have to comply with requests to defer, they are under no obligation to comply with requests for part-time attendance.

    I hope you are right regarding the suitability of reception for 4 year olds, however, I still have serious issues with the number of hours per week they are forced to spend there.

    • janelevicki says:


      I’ve only just found your blog and am loving it! I’m still going through it but I just wanted to comment about your observation the home schooling is not an option for parents who work.

      I’ve been home educating (usually the preferred term in the UK!) for almost 11 years now and have been employed or self employed for a large amount of that time. I know many other home educating parents who do the same. I’m not saying it’s easy, of course it isn’t, there are many ties and commitments to work around and it involves planning and support. But it can be done, and is done, in many different ways.

      I’m not a home educating extremist, I’m not trying to convert the world! I fully realise that it’s not for everyone. But just wanted to make the point that it’s actually a lot more flexible than people often realise 🙂

      • Jo says:

        Thanks! I’m glad you like my blog. And thanks for pointing this out about home educating and working. I’m interested to hear more about the subject and how you manage it, and think it’s important people are fully aware of all the options available to them. If you’re interested in doing a guest post on the topic I’d welcome one!

      • Jane Levicki says:

        Hi Jo

        The key is getting away from the mindset that ‘full time education’ equals ‘teaching your children from 9am to 3pm’. There may be some home educators who run a school-at-home but the vast majority don’t do anything that vaguely resembles that. Education typically becomes a much more fluid, holistic experience that runs through family life.

        But to talk in more practical terms, there is not a legal definition of ‘full time education’ as applicable to home ed and, as I’m sure you appreciate, learning is not confined by times, locations or styles. So, for example, if a parent needed to work three mornings a week, their child(ren) could be in the care of someone else (childminder, family, whatever) and no ‘teaching’ would be required.

        I could go on but it would get rather long! I’d be delighted to write a guest post at some point. I blog myself at (although not very often – must fix that!). Do drop me a line if you like and we’ll talk about it 🙂


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