Elma Family Kitty Motherhood Pause for Thought Pip

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.








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  • Caroline 03/06/2015 at 3:41 pm

    Yet again, I find we are on exactly the same page Carie:) As a primary school teacher and now a parent I find the desperate rush to get children into school unproductive and a bit sad. Like you said there has to be cut offs and not all children will be starting school when they are 100% ready (or over ready?) but I think on the whole most children are too young. Too young to sit and listen for long periods of time – not always the best way to learn but necessary in large classes with busy teachers. Too young to be away from the security of home – especially if a parent has been their main carer up until that point. Too young to have the pressure to read and write and all that good stuff which comes naturally when children are ready for the most part.
    I think you hit the nail on the head – for us to be productive our children have to be in full time education, (whether or not by doing this we are actually doing them any favours in long term learning goals). And many parents are desperate for children to reach the next milestone – I have seen so many Instagram videos this week of very young children writing their names with terrible letter formation and pencil grip – to please their carers rather than because they just want to make a mark on paper. Sorry for the essay – I feel strongly about this:) Brodie was 5 and a half when he started his first year of school and Baxter will be 4 and half and only time will tell if he’ll be ‘ready ‘ or not.

    • Carie 03/06/2015 at 7:24 pm

      No apologies needed, it’s really interesting to hear your viewpoint as a primary school teacher. I would love to see a system of an extended optional preschool with a later mandatory start date so that each child could start when they’re individually ready.

  • Mary 03/06/2015 at 4:51 pm

    I don’t think you’re being too cynical when you wonder whether our system is at least partly for economic reasons. I think that’s a big ol’ hefty chunk of it.

    But I think maybe part of it is that not all toddlers are raised with the privileges and advantages that you and H (and, I’m speculating here, the people in your family and social groups) have gone to such lengths to make available to your children. You read to them. You do crafts and activities with them. You take them to all sorts of places and set appropriate boundaries for their behaviour. You care about what they’re learning at nursery and I suspect that if it was the sort of place where they were just being “contained” then you would be looking for a different one.

    Roald Dahl’s Matilda was fictional but the family – where there are no books in the house, and the parents are disinterested, and the child has few if any social opportunities until starting school – the family was one that, in my old social circles, was all too familiar (if exaggerated for storytelling purposes).

    So yes, for the preschoolers for whom “play” means informal education, skill development, new experiences, going places, getting exercise, socialising with peers, perhaps bonding with siblings, and generally spending quality time playing with an interested parent who has the time, intellect, and most importantly the inclination to give it – why start formal schooling so early?

    For the preschoolers though for whom “play” means amusing themselves, on their own, with whatever toys happen to be in the vicinity, while their parent ignores them and does their own thing… even if they’re not and never will be Matilda, going to school can be a godsend, as well as something that wouldn’t necessarily occur if it wasn’t both free and a legal requirement.

    • Carie 03/06/2015 at 7:13 pm

      I think you make an excellent point that for the ‘Matildas’ having somewhere to go where there are toys and stories and a teacher that cares about them is a lifesaver. But my issue isn’t the existence of school so much as what they do when they’re there. My point wasn’t that there shouldn’t be a state provision in the early years, as I said in my post I think there should be somewhere where children can go to stretch their wings etc. My argument is against the start of formal schooling, the bit where you’re actually taught to read and write and do your maths, rather than learning orally, learning through movement and learning because you’re ready for it. Kitty gets a huge amount out of going to nursery and because of her age, at the moment it is almost entirely government funded through the nursery grant. What would make more sense to me would be the continuation of the nursery grant until a higher school age, or perhaps a longer stint in pre-school before ‘real’ school starts.

      The Finnish system may only start formal schooling at 7 but as I said there is a mandatory kindergarten year before that and state funded nursery places from three. Similarly the French have an extensive system of state pre-schools. In their systems it’s not where they are so much as what they’re doing that’s different.

      Just out of curiosity, did the families who didn’t engage with their children send the children to preschool using the nursery grant, or do you think that only if it was absolutely mandatory would they take the children out of the house?

      • Mary 03/06/2015 at 9:43 pm

        The ones I’m thinking of – the mandatory aspect was important. When someone you met at my wedding gave up their full-time work to become a single parent, the first few weeks were spent (a) signing up to all sorts of free and almost-free activities (Sure Start, etc) that the person who’d left had been given leaflets about but never acted on, and (b) deleting from the Sky box the full daily rota of automatic channel-changes, none of which were children’s programming.

        I’ve been sorry to know families where, yes, the kid would be taken out of the house like luggage when the “full-time parent” had something *they* needed or wanted to do, but rarely would there be child-focused activities, even free and simple ones like going to the park.

        I agree entirely, though, that there’s no good reason to leap in with Key Stage achievements and times-tables and penmanship and whatnot for a four-year-old. Something along the lines of “mandatory kindergarten” so that all kids can learn about sharing and routine and group games and what happens when you mush all the colours of playdough together would seem more age-appropriate.

        • Carie 03/06/2015 at 11:47 pm

          I remember your friend and I think they do a fantastic job. And it shows what can be done by and interested and involved parent without needing to have won the lottery to afford nursery fees or mummy/daddy and me classes. I think it’s amazing that people wouldn’t take their children to preschool unless it was mandatory, it’s essentially free childcare which if you’re not too interested in your kids you’d think would be appealing. I agree that just relaxing about what check lists need to be ticked off in Reception and just focusing on creative play would be a wonderful start wouldn’t it!

          • Mary 04/06/2015 at 10:50 am

            It’s the “interested and involved” bit that makes a difference – I only hope one day your kids know how very lucky they were to get what you give them in that regard!

          • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:15 am

            It raises a whole new question in some ways about how to coax unwilling parents into being interested and involved, to making that the norm through every geographical and social echelon. My children will always know that they are loved, and I hope they will have a childhood that they look back on fondly, but I don’t think that the way we are raising them is in any way exceptional, we’re just happily plodding along somewhere in the middle of the curve and so far, so good!

          • Mary 05/06/2015 at 3:33 pm

            I think you may be experiencing the parenting equivalent of the social media filter bubble. You associate with like-minded people in more or less the same social strata who are doing more or less the same kinds of things as you, precisely *because* they’re doing more or less the same kinds of things as you. For example you’re an active parenting blogger and read a lot of other parent blogs, but that is still a self-selecting group for parents who have reasonable reading/writing skills and are involved enough in their parenting journey to want to write about it.

            So for your peer group, you might be unexceptional and “somewhere in the middle of the curve”. Take it from Eliza Doolittle here – you’re not! To give you an idea, I’ve already had raised eyebrows from that side of my life for signing up to NCT antenatal classes (posh, snob, up myself, forgotten who I am, etc) and that’s from the people I was willing to tell!

            (Sorry. Going a bit off-topic due to my own worries about not fitting in with anyone any more!)

          • Carie 05/06/2015 at 11:20 pm

            I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. We’re all going to be subliminally influenced by our own life experience but I find it very hard to accept that the majority of children in this country are Matildas. And on a tangent, yay for NCT classes, they’re fantastic and a brilliant way to give you an local instant Mum support group – I’m still in contact with my group five years on.

  • Mandycharlie 03/06/2015 at 5:22 pm

    What Mary said.

    I know people that have hung on by their teeth waiting for children to go to school, whether that be from a monetary stance point, being able to eat and pay their rent or from a mental issue and not being well enough to look after children full time. Education is so much more than the 3 r’s as I know your aware, otherwise why send kitty to nursery? Perhaps one should view free education without the comforts of private nurseries and paid for extra curriculum activities, whilst at the same time worrying about where to find the money for new shoes and decent food.

    • Carie 03/06/2015 at 7:19 pm

      I think that’s my point entirely; education should be about far more than the 3rs, as I said to Mary my argument is not against a state provision, but that it should not be rushing children towards the 3rs when at the ages of 4,5 and 6 the research suggests that their learning should be experiential, play based and driven by their own curiosity. The net result in terms of household finances might ultimately be the same, it’s what the children are being taught that I suggest should be different.

      • Mandycharlie 04/06/2015 at 10:02 am

        I think you’ll find that the first few years are still very play driven, there will be gym and sports, art and music and dance, swimming if your lucky. There will be cooking and nature walks and group reading time and then there will be a little handwriting, reading and maths. The topic on the curriculum is explored through art and stories at this age, be prepared for many paper mache masks of Egyptian Gods. I know both of mine would have been bored to tears without the more academic side of education, with both having a love of reading from an early age, son no2 2.5 years, without help from the school and a reading system in place he could have slipped off the rails from sheer boredom.

        • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:10 am

          I hope so, but the more I read the more I realise how much has changed since my school days. There seems to be so much more paperwork in terms of SATs at 4 and continuing documented assessment that you wonder where the time to play fits in – but we’ll find out in September.

  • Kim 03/06/2015 at 8:22 pm

    We start school here, in Canada, at the age of 4, full days. If my little man had gone to school, being a November baby and the cut off for school being December 31, he would have started school at 3. Yikes!

    For that reason, and many more, we chose to homeschool. And following the lead of Finland, which I studied quite a bit in my early research about early academics, we are waiting til 7 to start formal academics. Til this point we have read together, shared stories, spent a lot of time in nature, done a ton of crafting, painting, and creating, and played…a lot. He is involved in the day to day running of our little homestead, and enjoys meeting friends on a regular basis for nature adventures and play.

    I believe in a later academic start for most children. I think in some circumstances an early start would be beneficial to some children, but I think for most time in the early years to explore, play, connect to nature, and family are more important than learning to read, write, and do math.

    Just my two cents 🙂

    • Carie 03/06/2015 at 11:56 pm

      It’s lovely to hear your two cents Kim, thank you. I didn’t know that Canada started so early too – I just can’t imagine sending a 3 year old off for full days, when Kitty was 3 she did 3 days a week at nursery and it was quite enough that she needed the two other days of the working week to be quiet, calm, snuggling sort of days to balance her out. Your lovely son looks absolutely delightful and you can tell that just by watching what you do he will have absorbed so much information, about the garden and the woods around you and the fabulous fish ladder and all!

    • Yanic 06/06/2015 at 12:50 pm

      That must be an Ontario thing because in Quebec Province, the cut off date is Sept 30th so the earliest your child can start school is 4. But many start at 5. My daughter is like yours, starting KG a few weeks before turning 5 (which date is Kitty? Mine is Sept 16). But many of the kids that went to preschool with her this year have already turned 5, having been born passed the cut off date. I was born in November so I started KG at almost 6. But that being said, yes, I wish school would start a year or 2 later. I am pretty lucky and our KG still implements rest/nap in the afternoon, lots of art and fun. They have nature classes and start late (8 h 30) and end early (3 pm) with a big 1 h 15 min lunch period and 2 recesses. That makes me feel better about it because I know the kiddos won’t be dead at the end of the day. And that gives me time to do part-time homeschooling (I like the call it) with subjects I feel are important that might not be pushed enough. But then again I’m lucky enough to not have to leave them in before/after school daycare. My heart aches for parents that don’t have any other choice.

      • Carie 07/06/2015 at 6:44 am

        Oh that sounds like a wonderful kindergarten. – and interesting to hear how different it is in different parts of Canada, we’re pretty much the same across England and Wales, though Scotland has some differences.

  • Preeta Samarasan 03/06/2015 at 9:18 pm

    Really an excellent post! I understand Mary’s point, but I would argue that reading to young children and doing crafts and activities with them and exposing them to lots of interesting environments at a young age are all wonderful things to do — in fact I do it all with my own children — and yet I’m not convinced, having travelled to and lived in many different cultures, that children cannot grow up to achieve great things without that kind of beginning. I am not even sure it takes an *exceptional* child to achieve a certain measure of success without that particular kind of start to life. I think that our Western perspective privileges that kind of parenting, but there is also something to be said for a childhood spent largely unsupervised among other children — in fact, go back 70 years and you will find that most children even in the West grew up playing freely with each other, largely unsupervised, rather than being read to or doing crafts with Mummy — and yet some of those same children grew up to become great writers, artists, scientists, and happy, well-adjusted people. I remind myself of this because so often modern, middle-class parents feel like failures for not doing enough educational activities with their children, not crafting enough, not baking enough, but honestly, while it’s great to do these things, I am not sure children really *need* any kind of “head start” at all. And — I realise I’m revealing myself as a radical here — I am not even convinced that “formal education” is the best way to learn, at any age. I think we make children sit still and listen for long periods of time because, as Caroline said, it’s the most convenient system for us. I’d highly recommend John Holt’s work (How Children Fail, How Children Learn) to anyone interested in this subject. As for the French system — I live in France, and it’s true, the state pre-school system is pretty great, but what is not so great is that at age 6 children are shunted straight from this pre-school system into an academic system that is much more rigid, competitive, and narrow than anything in the UK. *Lots* of sitting still and obeying authority and taking tests. We home educate as well, not because I think it’s the perfect solution — you obviously have to work a lot harder to find opportunities for your children to spend time with other children — but because we can’t imagine putting young children into a system that refuses to take into account their individual strengths and weaknesses and interests. If we lived in the UK, we may or may not have made the decision to home educate, but here, there was almost no question.

    • Carie 03/06/2015 at 11:52 pm

      Oh that’s fascinating to hear about the French system from someone with experience of it, I’ve only read about it from the preschool angle. I’ve got some John Holt books on my reading wish list at the moment; I find the whole idea of how we choose to educate our children fascinating, and finding that balancing act between ensuring that there is education, meeting a child at their own pace, and finding the way that has the least flaws is a tough ask, especially when you’re trying to apply it to every personality under the sun. Thank you for sharing your point of view, it was wonderful to read 🙂

  • Mama, My Kid Doesn't Poop Rainbows 04/06/2015 at 2:12 am

    Just popping by to say hi and check out my MADS competition 🙂

    I’m a teacher who trained in the UK but currently works in a Swiss school. Here the kids also start formal learning later than us- usually aged 6/7. From my observations I’d say it’s excellent for the less academic kids or less mature kids who need more time to get ready to learn. Some of the more mature kids are left bored though, not having enough asked of them when they are ready to be moving on. The good thing about the system here is that the kids can remain at kindergarten and the equivalent of first grade for up to two years or less. That way the kids can move up when they are ready rather than when they hit a certain age.

    Anyway nice to meet you!

    • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:06 am

      Hello dear friend and rival – it’s lovely to meet you too!! Thank you for your input about the Swiss schools, it’s great that the children can move up as and when they’re ready although I imagine the logistics are a bit of a challenge!

  • jen at barnraised 04/06/2015 at 6:03 am

    Words of wisdom! I agree, what’s the rush? I started my daughter in Kindergarten here in the U.S. at 6 years old. 5 is the “norm” and many were rushing in and “testing in” their children at 4. Well, we homeschool now so that’s all null and void. But, in Kindergarten I did see my daughter as more mature, more able to handle emotionally and developmentally all of the “stress” that comes with school. She handled things so much better than the younger ones did. And, I sure loved that extra year home with her. Which may be why I ultimately chose to keep her home with me afterall. Anyways, very relevant post. And…I love the picture!!

    • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:07 am

      Thank you – it’s so interesting to me how different countries view early education, and yay for having had the extra year at home (and all the time in the world now!)

  • Nasreen 04/06/2015 at 7:47 am

    Here in Italy there is full-time, non-mandatory, play-based (but with lots of desk time) nursery school from the age of 3. The kids do a little bit of school prep during the last of their 3 years there, but then at age 6 are catapulted into a formal education system where they are sitting for 5 hours a day, 6 days a week, with LOTS of homework from the outset. My first son had no problem with that, but the second found it a difficult transition and I was terrified that he would wind up hating school and reading. Luckily he has wonderful teachers that gave him time and nurtured him as much as they could within the curriculum. All kids are different but whereas the ones that are ready to get stuck in aren’t penalised by informal education (they can always be stimulated to do more and most likely will do it themselves) the ones that aren’t ready have the potential to be react negatively to formal education.

    • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:08 am

      Wow that must be a shock to the system at age 6 – it’s great that your son’s teachers were really able to help him and nurture him through that transition.

  • Suzanne3childrenandit 04/06/2015 at 6:23 pm

    I’m not sure of the reason but in the main, I think it’s the pressure that Britain feels to conform or compete with the rest of the world in terms of how educated our children are. Weirdly, some other countries don’t seem bothered by being at the lower end of the spectrum but ours is. When my three started school, the law was that they had to start the term before they were five – a three-term intake. I think that works but better. I wonder whether parents should be given the option to wait if they don’t feel their child is ready? I know that my middle one wasn’t 🙁 x x

    • Carie 05/06/2015 at 12:19 am

      A three term intake would at least give the littlest ones time to catch up wouldn’t it. I think the next few years are going to be in equal parts interesting and worrying as we watch it all unfold from both extreme ends of the spectrum with Kitty and then Pip.

  • grace 05/06/2015 at 1:45 am

    Hi Carrie
    I haven’t had time to read all the comments but two of our children were born very close (under two weeks) to the school age date but with the support of our G.P. we held them back (it worked so well with the first when we had another so close to the date we did it again) we didn’t want them to be the youngest not only at that time but puberty and a year younger at licences and voting etc it was one of the best decisions we’ve made both were the eldest in their class and leaders and also very caring for their class mates. My brother went at 4 and 2 months and I remember how hard it was for him being the youngest in the class (but the smartest) and that’s why I knew that no matter how well adjusted they seem to be it resurfaces at puberty and again at the legal age for things. As for missing out it’s the child in the classroom who is missing out, the classroom will be there the following year but this moment and all the wonderful things a four year old should be doing won’t. (We had to get official permission to hold them back but it wasn’t hard) blessings Grace

    • Carie 05/06/2015 at 11:09 pm

      Thanks Grace, that’s really interesting to know – and good to know that it worked out well for your little ones too.

  • sally 13/06/2015 at 9:32 pm

    This is something I feel very strongly about too. My 3 older ones were all fairly much ready for school I think, and we’re lucky that we have a great local, primary school and Reception is very much play based with lots of child led, independent learning though play. This is very much what Reception should be about, and I mean that officially rather than just as my personal opinion, so hopefully you’ll find that to be the case at your local school come September. But even having said that, Maria is a Summer baby and we really felt that she wasn’t ready for school at her standard start date last year. After giving it a go for a few weeks I was even more convinced and pulled her out. She went back to the amazing Montessori pre-school she’d loved when she was ‘pre-school’, and did 15 hours a week there and was with me the rest of the time. We could do this because legally children don’t have to start school until the term after they’re 5. Obviously schools don’t generally encourage this because their funding is based on a point in early Autumn, but parents are perfectly entitled to go down this route. We’re lucky where we are that there isn’t competition for school places because I guess that would complicate the issue. Anyway it was perfect for her, definitely the right decision. And great from an academic point of view too, rather than pushing her slowly through fairly boring ‘reading’ books, we kept reading completely for fun with no pressure on her at all. Until Easter she showed absolutely no interest at all in learning to read, and then all of a sudden she went reading mad and in the space of just a few weeks she really took off with it and in fact overtook all of her friends who were at school without us even trying. It worked so well for her that we really didn’t want to change anything this year, but sadly she couldn’t continue at her pre-school and she does love that kind of social interaction, so we went for half and half home and school this year. And it’s worked really well again, she’s more than kept up at school and all we do in our home time is have fun, get outside, play games, bake etc. Again we’re lucky with our school in that they’re flexible and prepared to work with us on this, not many schools encourage flexi schooling these days. Children are amazing little explorers and scientists at this age, and if they’re given the right environment then I think they pretty much manage their own learning. It’s so easy to ‘teach’ this out of them at school. But I can appreciate some of the above comments on when children don’t have the right environment available to them. Sorry, mammoth comment!

    • Carie 14/06/2015 at 9:08 pm

      I love the mammoth comments – it means it’s an interesting topic! And your point about a competition for places having an impact is something I hadn’t thought about but it absolutely does, you can be much more flexible if not applying this year doesn’t mean that there might not be a place for you next year.