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False start in early learning

Some TV researchers tried a mini-experiment. They translated a key stage 1 maths national test paper into Hungarian and gave it to a mixed-ability group of seven-year-olds in an inner-city school in Eastern Hungary. Half the group managed a level 3, and most of the rest were high-scoring 2s.

These children had been studying maths for only one year - two years less than their English counterparts.

In Hungary, children do not start formal learning till they are six. They do, however, have two years of carefully designed kindergarten education, which includes oral work to develop mathematical concepts. Preparation for literacy develops children's spoken language and vocabulary, tuning their ears to sound for reading, and fostering the physical skills needed for handwriting.

When Hungarian six-year-olds are at last taught to read, write and do written sums, the majority take to it with ease. They also have well-honed speaking and listening skills, improved self-confidence, increased attention span and social competence.

How different from our system, where children plunge straight into pencil and paper work in the Reception class. Our assumption is that the sooner they get started on formal literacy and numeracy the better, and we must not on any account "hold them back". So no time for speaking and listening, no time for attention-building and social skills - there is a mountain of worksheets to be completed by the time you are six.

Yet even after five years of the literacy and numeracy strategies, we still have a sizeable "tail of underachievement". And it is still drawn from the two groups that, for developmental reasons, do not take well to an early start - those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and boys.

Surely it is time we looked seriously at whether a later start does "hold back" the more able. Or whether a firm grounding in oral language might provide a surer start for every child.

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