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Absence of phonic irritation aids the playful Finns

In England people fret over evidence that five and six-year-olds are getting inadequate phonics teaching, (see TES, November 15). And yet Finnish children - whose literacy levels at 13 have yet again beaten every other country in the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development international study - start formal schooling at age seven.

"We are going badly wrong by putting our children in school at four," says Anne Beer, a teaching assistant at Dunbury first school in Dorset.

Ms Beer has just returned from a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship to Finland, New Zealand and Australia to study pre-schooling in rural areas. She is concerned about the system we put young children through, and believes that other countries invest more and work more from the starting point of the child. At a pre-school near Hastings, New Zealand, she found children spending a week on a construction project, without anyone demanding an outcome. "Rather than 'you should be learning this', there is a two-way street between the child and the adults. They value and listen to the child and their contribution," she says.

There are many differences between England and Finland - Finnish is one of the most phonically regular languages in the world. Nevertheless, there is much to think about.

Finnish mothers get two years maternity leave, which must surely help develop the language awareness which reception teachers here find increasingly lacking in children entering school. The Finns are also committed to learning through play and music. Seven-year-olds spend an hour each morning and afternoon playing at school. All early-years teachers learn either the guitar or the piano, Ms Beer watched a pre-school class where children bounced balls to music, and another where they bent pipecleaners to music, finally forming the letter S, learned kinesthetically. Ms Beer also points to New Zealand research showing that if children's gross motor skills have not developed before they start using the fine motor skills needed in writing, it can be harmful.

"I fear that we are going to have long-term problems with our children", she says. "Once they switch off at 11 or 12 we're not going to switch them on again. We have an education system that suits the policy-makers. We need to listen to our children more".

Research, 28 Information on the travelling fellowships from

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