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Betsy Maytham

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Is Starting School at 5 Damaging Our Children?

There is a group called Upstart Scotland whose aim it is to persuade the Scottish government to introduce what they are calling a ‘kindergarten stage’. This would be for children between the ages of three and seven and would focus on learning and developing through play. There would be no formal literacy teaching till the age of seven or eight.

So that’s what they want. Let’s consider it. In a lot of ways, it might seem self-evident that if you start teaching earlier, you get further. However, the facts appear to point to the exact opposite. If you look at the number of countries where children currently start school aged five (six European countries: Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, Scotland, Wales and, of course, England) and the number of countries where children start school aged six or seven (thirty-one – I don’t intend to list them all, but the list includes France, Germany, Spain and Italy, for starters), it is clear that the vast majority of countries feel that children should have a longer play-based learning experience. One would assume that such an overwhelming majority must have some reason behind its decision. Additionally, when looking at a variety of league tables comparing students’ attainment across Europe, it seems that those countries where children don’t start school till age seven (Estonia, Finland and Poland amongst others) are actually outperforming those who have had a two-year head-start.

So why is this? What is it about starting later that allows children to progress so much more quickly? Perhaps it is the wording of that very question that the problem lies. Why do we assume that extending children’s access to play-based learning means ‘starting later’? Formal teaching is not the be all and end all of children’s education. Why, then, do we put so much emphasis on it? It is easy (and perhaps, cynical) to say that it’s because formal education is so much easier to test and show formal outcomes from, rather than the more holistic and therefore subjective results of play-based learning. We all know how much the ‘powers that be’ love a nice, written standardised test! Indeed, our primary school aged children are ‘the most excessively tested children in the whole of Europe’, according to Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. However, more tests don’t make better-educated children. Just as a cup doesn’t become stronger by repeatedly dropping it to test if it will smash, a child doesn’t become more intelligent by repeatedly testing it to see if it will pass. So if we accept the two facts that tests are not crucial to learning (especially early learning) and that starting formal teaching earlier does not lead to higher achievement, it seems self-evident that a longer period of play-based learning is a perfectly valid notion.

Moreover, we can go even further and say that a longer period of play-based learning appears not only valid, but extremely worthwhile. The league tables of European educational attainment do not lie (we hope!). A study from 2012, by David Whitebread of the University of Cambridge, found that ‘playfulness is strongly related to cognitive development and emotional well-being’. We all know that play is how children learn in the early years. Why, then, do we assume that this finishes somewhere in the July between Reception and Year One? A quote often attributed to Piaget (and no less valid even if he didn’t say it!) is ‘play is a child’s work’. Children don’t stop being children the summer after they turn six. Play-based learning would therefore still appear to be the most appropriate learning style for them until at least the age of seven. Often the very word ‘play’ carries negative connotations for us adults: consider our opinions of colleagues who ‘play about’ with their work or partners who ‘play games’ in relationships. Consider our thoughts about adults who ‘play’ instead of working. But for children, playtime is not just a nice, lazy part of the day, but crucial to their development and well-being.

Significantly, studies in New Zealand have shown that the main difference between children whose formal education started earlier (at age 5) and those who started later (at age 7) showed that there was essentially no difference in their reading ability level. The difference came in their attitude towards reading. Those who had started at age 5 had ‘developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later’. So, not only was their attainment no better, but their confidence and enjoyment of reading was actually damaged by this early start! Considering the focus on ‘reading for pleasure’ that the National Curriculum now has, it seems inconceivable that this piece of information is not made more of. This is crucial! I’ll say it again: children who are introduced to formal literacy teaching earlier have poorer attitudes to reading. How completely fascinating and, given the current national school starting age, how very worrying.

In summary, then, it would seem that Upstart Scotland are making a very good point. We are not helping our children by putting them into schools earlier than those in other countries. Indeed, in some cases, it would seem that we are hindering them. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of mainland Europe’s book when it comes to early years teaching. Or perhaps we should throw out the books altogether. However, whatever we do, we must keep at the heart of it this one simple idea: children need to play.