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The best age to start?

IN FINLAND or Switzerland, they might spend a productive day discovering the hidden depths of the dressing-up box. A stressful day in the United States would involve discovering someone had already grabbed the best-coloured crayons and pens.

But for a five-year-old in England, these concerns have long been overtaken by the intricacies of phonics and the rigours of addition, subtraction and multiplication tables.

This "prescriptive" programme has led to a substantial number of British primary teachers - 39 per cent - believing that children should not start formal education until they are at least six.

Most also believe that the Government should not prescribe when pupils learn tables or what kind of phonics schemes they use. A TES survey of 600 heads and classroom teachers revealed that fewer than one in five believed children should start school at the age of four or younger. Chris Davis, head of Queniborough primary, Leicester, is unsurprised by these findings.

"If you ask children to do something when they are not mature enough, whether physically or emotionally, it can be very detrimental," he said.

"For example, asking them to hold a pencil when they are not ready can build up a negative attitude to school for life. This can be difficult to break down later."

Lesley Osman, key stage 1 teacher at High Bickington primary, Devon, agreed. Her class includes pupils from the age of four through to seven.

For the youngest children, she said, the expectation that they will absorb letters and numbers is unrealistically high.

"You are still working on expectations of behaviour," she said. "That socialising aspect is very time consuming. There is an awful lot for four-year-olds to take on board and it is tiring for them. The older ones have those social skills and are able to use them."

Many teachers drew comparisons between British schools and those in other countries where formal education begins much later. For example, official primary entrance is six in Japan, Norway, France and the United States, and at seven in Finland, Switzerland and Slovenia. In Wales, a new play-based foundation stage delays formal education until seven. Instead, the three-to-seven curriculum focuses on personal and social development, such as awareness of their own bodies, and a multicultural understanding of the world.

Lesley Stagg, an early childhood consultant, insists that comparisons with other countries are misleading. A later school starting age, she said, might make the transition between nursery and primary more difficult.

"We are not Scandinavia," she said. "We are a different sort of society. We have a history where early years education has always been part of the mainstream school system. I think that is absolutely fine, as long as the experience, staff and environment are right for the children."

She said that all children benefit from adult-directed learning, whatever their age, as long as this involves hands-on activities that take into consideration the average concentration span of a five-year-old.

Ruth Pimental, director of the foundation stage for the national strategies, believes that this is what the curriculum provides. "Early years is certainly not what could be described as a formal curriculum," she said. "Personal, social and emotional development have always been important."

But Ms Osman disagrees. She believes that expectations on older primary pupils trickle down to the four and five-year-olds.

"There is mathematics, letter formations, being able to make decisions,"

she said. "It is an awful lot to ask of a small child. But you have to do it, in order to fit everything in.

"Children need opportunities to talk and listen to one another, and to interact. They need time to develop their own personality. That is being stripped away by the things we are asking them to do, because we are being asked to do them by the Government."


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