Growing evidence that children in the UK gain no lasting advantage from starting school earlier than those in other countries has prompted calls for a rethink of the Government's early-years strategy.
Far from offering children a head start, teaching them the 3Rs too soon gives many a taste of failure that eventually leads to truancy and disaffection, according to advocates of a later school starting age.
"The first lesson some kids learn is that they are thick, but they are not really thick, they are just being presented with work which is not appropriate to their developmental status," said Paul Clein, chair of Liverpool City Council's education committee Mr Clein was a speaker at a recent seminar on the school starting age organised by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Local Government Association (LGA).
Caroline Sharp, principal researcher at the NFER, stressed that evidence about the benefits of different starting ages was far from conclusive. Presenting a review of research, she told the seminar that international comparisons provided only indirect evidence because they involved very different cultures and educational systems.
"What we can say is that a later start does not appear to hold back children's progress, although it is important not to forget the important contribution made by children's experiences at home and in pre-school," she said.
"Certainly, there would appear to be no compelling educational rationale for a statutory school age of five or for the practice of admitting four-year-olds to school reception classes."
This practice is on the increase, with the latest government figures showing that in January this year, 59 per cent of four-year-olds were in school reception classes - up from 55 per cent four years ago. The Netherlands is the only other European country where children can start formal schooling at such a young age.
Six is the most common starting age in Europe and the rest of the world, although many countries provide pre-school education from the age of three.
Arguments in favour of the UK's early starting age usually centre on the need to level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Yet a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development showed that by the time they reached their teens, the gap between the achievements of students from professional and working-class backgrounds was wider in Britain than in most other countries.
Other studies have found that while learning to read at an early age gives children an initial academic advantage, this is not sustained in the long-term. There are also indications that formal schooling can make young children feel anxious and reduce their motivation to learn. An early introduction to a formal curriculum may mean that children miss out on other important learning experiences, especially the chance to develop social and cognitive skills.
On the other hand, effective pre-school education that combines adult-led activities with play can work for all children. The early-years educators and other participants at the NFERLGA seminar agreed on the need to provide all three to six-year-olds with experiences appropriate for their age.
While some thought this could be done by extending the Foundation Stage to the end of Year 1, others argued for the more radical step of raising the school starting age to six.
But the Department for Education and Skills has no plans to adopt either proposal. A spokeswoman for the department said: "What is important is that the early-learning experience is of good quality and is relevant to the stage of a child's development. This is the fundamental aim of the Foundation Stage and we are now working to embed this effective practice."
School starting age: European policy and recent research by Caroline Sharp is available at www.nfer.ac.uk
WHEN EUROPEANS GO TO SCHOOL
Age four: Northern Ireland Age five: England, Malta, Netherlands, Scotland, Wales Age six: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Italy,Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain Age seven: Bulgaria, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Sweden Source: European Commission. EURYDICE and EUROSTAT