Starting School At Four - Is It Too Much Too Soon?

Starting School At Four - Is It Too Much Too Soon?

Coinciding with the arrival of a fresh cohort of four- and five-year-olds into primary school reception classrooms this month, a new campaign, Too Much Too Soon, is calling for less formal education up until the age of seven.

An impressive list of over 127 leading academics and educationalists support the campaign and they believe that children in England start formal learning too young - much earlier than most other European countries, where school is only compulsory at six or seven.

This they say puts children under developmentally inappropriate pressures that damage health and well being. They'd like to see more play-based learning, no baseline testing (assessment of skills and capabilities when pupils start school) and a more 'developmentally appropriate foundation stage' for ages three to seven.

These experts cite countries such as Finland, where children go to school at seven yet attainment on most metrics is still amongst the best worldwide, as examples of a better way.

So what do parents and teachers at the coalface – or should that be the school gate – think?

Do they feel that four or five is too young to start school and how could all this work if our children didn't go until age six or seven?

Angila, who began her teaching career in Britain but now works in South Africa, feels quite strongly that our system, as per the campaign's name, is indeed too much too soon. "As a teacher I really do feel that those long days do no more than tire them out. I saw no point in it and think that they do much better here starting at six. Children learn through play! Let them play for as long as possible. Painting messily, playing with sand and water. Not too many formalities."

Another teacher, Liz, agrees: "Formal learning before six runs the risk of putting off the children who aren't ready yet and does not benefit those who are. Play, painting, stories and being outside as much as possible are the best way to start a lifelong love of learning."

Dad of three, Paul, thinks his children, now all in their teens, would have loved to, as he put it "doss around outside playing and climbing trees" for another couple of years and sees no downside: "I have close friends in Germany and their children started school much later yet they're no less educated than mine – in fact perhaps the opposite. They all get there in the end so why not just start later when they're ready?"

The problem with this argument though is that our whole education system is not geared up to children only starting school at seven and massive and therefore expensive and time consuming changes would be needed.

Our nurseries couldn't simply start taking three year groups of additional children without a major expansion programme. How would the parents of two-year-olds feel about relatively huge seven-year-olds marauding among their tiny toddlers? Our nursery staff remain far less qualified on average (of course there are expections) than those in Scandinavia and Germany where most hold degree level qualifications and are better paid.

If Key Stage 1 and reception children were to still go to their schools but all their time was to be about play, then would the existing classrooms be fit for purpose or too small and too conventional? Even with the best will in the world, all this can't be changed overnight.

Besides, some children and their parents positively welcome school at four and appreciate the status quo. Victoria, who has a son and daughter of primary age says: "Both of mine chose to learn to read before school – they nagged me to tell them letter sounds and help them. It was definitely lead by them and not me. They were really interested and to them learning letters and numbers was play.

"I know not all children are like this but they loved school from day one. The noise and excitement of it all but yes the learning to read and write too. My younger one would only be starting formal school now at age seven in some countries – I simply can't imagine that at all given how much she's learnt and how much she's loved learning."

Karen, a mother of one, is also happy with the way things are – she felt her son, now age nine, was ready at four when he started at his prep school. "He was a sociable child and I didn't have a problem with it and nor did he – he was very pleased to start school. The learning wasn't an issue as it was very light and play-based anyway."

Laura, who also has one son, has a more cautious view - for her five is fine but she has reservations about too much formality: "I am happy with five as a starting age as reception is mainly play-based but I would like to have any pressure on children meeting targets at that age removed."

I'm with Laura on this - reception has been largely play-based and besides, surely a half hour's Jolly Phonics a day, sitting on the carpet and listening to some stories now and then is hardly akin to child cruelty (not that I'm saying the campaigners are suggesting that as clearly they are not).

However, the Government does need to keep things roundly fun and informal for these young children - the creep of assessment and testing down into reception and even earlier can and does cause issues - take all those literacy and numeracy workbooks for five-year-olds lining the shelves of bookshops.

The fact there's a market for them is a sign of the anxiety and pressure that too much educational testing too soon has the potential to bring. No matter how often parents are told that the results won't go on their child's CV age 21, they'll remain keen for them to do well and often will be disappointed if they don't.

Maybe the answer is to give parents a choice: let them make a call about what's right for their son or daughter, who after all they know better than anyone. If they want to keep them in a nursery setting so they can run about, play games and dress up all day, that's fine, but equally if they prefer them to go to primary school and learn some phonics or numeracy, as well as run about, play games and dress up part of the day, that's okay too.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.

Join the debate: do you think four and five is too young an age for formal schooling?