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Does early to school make Jack a dull boy?

Problem: many children entering primary schools today are not well-equipped to learn. Both the chief inspector of schools and the director of the Basic Skills Agency have recently voiced concern about the poor language, behaviour and social skills of four-year-olds coming into reception classes.

Further problem: according to the teachers I meet on my in-service travels, there's no time to sort out these linguistic and social handicaps, because the children have got to knuckle down to literacy and numeracy. Key stage 1 tests beckon.

We've always had a very early start to education in this country - and these days the tests and targets culture that pervades primary education means even less time is being devoted to developing speaking, listening and social skills in the early stages. Children are coming to school unready - perhaps unable - to learn and instead of doing something to help them, we're doling out reading books and worksheets. Contrast this with many European countries, where formal schooling starts at six or seven, and there's a strong tradition of pre-school education, starting at three, with structured attention to the development of oral language, attention span and social skills.

In a report last autumn on the education of six-year-olds in England, Denmark and Finland, the Office for Standards in Education pointed out that the Scandinavian children exhibited considerably better behaviour, language and listening skills than their English counterparts, and "teachers were not preoccupied by discipline and control to the extent that many were in England". The answer to the problems therefore seems obvious. We should raise the age at which children start formal schooling to six or even seven, and provide a rigorous pre-school curriculum. This would help us sort out any lack of social and linguistic graces, and develop attention span, self-control and ability to concentrate so that they're able to benefit from education when it starts.

It seems clear that a later start doesn't "hold children back". European children soon catch up with and, in many cases, overtake us. I believe a later start would lead to a rise in standards. At present, too many children fall at the first fence, and we waste a fortune on catch-up programmes which don't seem to make much difference. If children were better prepared for literacy and numeracy, we could prevent much of this early failure. We might also go some way to solving the gender gap - international statistics show that in countries where children start school later, there is far less difference between girls' and boys' academic performance in later years.

So why don't we do it? Early-years education experts have been recommending it for years. And it's not as if we are incapable of putting together a good solid pre-school curriculum - indeed the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage to which schools must by law "have regard", is generally excellent and could easily be the basis of another one or two years'

practice (but it was written in a regime where reading and writing start in reception, so the oral language and listening skills elements would need beefing up).

Perhaps we got so tied up in the tests and targets culture that we can't think straight. When life revolves around a pencil-and-paper test, pencils and paper rule. We dole them out to five-year-olds who can't talk, listen, concentrate or sit still. God help them, poor little souls. And God help the rest of us when they grow up and take their revenge.

Primary forum 24

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