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On rushing into formal education


Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade life

I’m a June baby, and so is H.  We started school aged four years, two and a half months, took our senior school exams when we were 10 and while I had to wait until August for the results, I’d finished all of my GCSE exams at 15, my A-levels at 17 and my university finals at 20.

Kitty on the other hand will be only a couple of weeks off turning five when she starts, and if she potters through school at the traditional pace she’ll be 16 3/4 for her GCSEs and be more than entitled to celebrate the conclusion of her A-levels with something sparkling down the pub. Had she been born 22 days earlier she’d have started this year and I’m pretty sure that she would be able to read by now, able to write more than her name, our family names, anything we spell for her and a whole host of wonderful made up words of her own.

If she had gone to school this year she would have been fine.  She’s the size of a 7 year old, confident within her peers and loves being with her friends, has a whale of a time at her nursery, and her future school is wonderful and appears to do everything they can to within the confines of the curriculum to continue with experience-led learning.  And yet I am so glad that she didn’t.  Compared to me, and to her brother when his turn comes, she will have had almost an entire extra year at home.  A year to play, a year to get absolutely wiped out by her days at nursery and still have time to rest and recover on her days off, a year to continue to explore the world at her own pace and led solely by her own sense of curiosity. And that can only be a good thing.

I know that there will always have to be a cut off point, and that whenever you have a cut off you’re going to have to have some children very close to it on either side, the ones who’ve only just finished eating their fourth birthday cake and the ones already planning what should be on the top of their fifth.  So I don’t take issue with the cut off, though perhaps there is something to be said for a split entry class in the earliest years, so much as wonder why it is now.

Why do we put our children into formal education at four (and however many days) and not five, or even perhaps six or seven? Why is it considered a good thing to start your education early? The age at which we must start school in Britain is one of the lowest in Europe, and those one the same line as us are countries that have had, shall we say, a great deal of British influence in their history. So what’s the rush?

Space for the Butterflies - an eclectic handmade life

After I finished University I did a year’s professional qualifications and then two years on the job training.  I was 24 when I qualified in my profession, which is about as young as you can be assuming you didn’t jump up a year at school.  And while it felt great in the sense of having finally realised an ambition I’d had since I was 14, and I don’t at all regret not having taken any years out along the way, I can’t see that there was a huge advantage to me in qualifying at that age, or that my career would have been irretrievably damaged had I leant to read and write at five or even six instead.

Finland is widely regarded as having one of the best educational systems in the world, and yet its children don’t start formal education until they are seven (having attended a compulsory kindergarten year when they are six).  The University of Cambridge research on School Starting Age points to those European Countries that have reputations for academic excellence and notes that they all have a longer pre-school period before what we would think of as a delayed start to formal schooling, and looked at studies from New Zealand which compared the literacy and enthusiasm for reading between a group that started at 5 and a group that started at 7.  There was absolutely no difference in the children’s reading age at 11, but the group that started earlier had a less positive attitude towards reading and a lower level of text comprehension (i.e. they knew the words but couldn’t have told you what was happening in the story).  And this is neither the first nor the last study of its kind, all with similar results.

So why are we starting formal education at four?

I can definitely see the benefit to some sort of early years provision; time to be with their peers, to socialise, to explore that little bit further away from the home nest, and quite often just time to run around in larger spaces than at home (Kitty’s nursery garden is huge compared to ours and her school’s playing fields are frankly idyllic), and I’m not suggesting that any child who desperately wants to know how to read, or who figures it out herself should be told she shouldn’t, there will always be children who are naturally ready to read and each and every one has a right to be supported,  but when I look at the current situation versus the research that has been done on early years education I feel I must be missing something.  Why can we accept that some children will walk sooner than others, but not apply it to writing, Why is the biggest piece of advice that we’re ever given about potty training to wait until our child is really ready, regardless of how his peers are doing, but we can’t apply that to reading? Why are we doing what we’re doing?

Is it a reluctance to change the status quo, a fear of the unknown and the inevitable backlash against change? Taking a very cynical line, is it economics, the sooner you have children in school for a good chunk of time, the sooner their parents can be back hard at work contributing to the economy? Or is it simply that if we did make a whole scale national change to delay formal education there would always be a core group of parents that would employ coaches and spend hours teaching their children themselves just for the Mummy bragging rights?

I wish I knew what the answer was, but I do suspect that in four years time I will rather be wishing that Pip too was going to get another year of play.