The national curriculum could be scrapped for five-year-olds under radical plans being considered by the Government.
Ministers have asked advisers to examine whether formal schooling should be delayed until children are six. They should also look at whether three to five-year-olds are a "distinct phase" for which new guidelines should be developed as part of Curriculum 2000.
Speaking at two early-years conferences this week, Estelle Morris, education minister, said she had become increasingly aware of the debate that British children may start formal education too early.
Research for a recent C4 Dispatches found that children in European countries where formal learning is delayed until six or seven did better in international maths and science tests.
The minister also hinted that the Government's Desirable Learning Outcomes for nursery education - targets children are expected to have reached by five - will be scrapped under the major curriculum review. Early-years specialists say they are too prescriptive and insufficiently play-based.
The minister said: "The public mood has changed in the five years desirable learning outcomes have been in existence.
"The idea then was to make children do what they can do later, earlier. I share the view that there may be more sophisticated and open methods in the way we prepare children for formal schooling."
The QCA regards changes to the early-years curriculum as one of the most significant aspects of the curriculum review. One strong possibility is a graduated curriculum, heavily play-based for three and four-year-olds, slightly more formal at five and leading into key stage 1 at six.
"How the pre-school and the revised KS1 curriculum matches together is fundamental," a QCA source said. Whatever the outcome, there are no plans to lower the starting age of compulsory education.
Today the Government was due to unveil plans setting out how every local authority in England will meet its commitment of providing a nursery place for every four-year-old whose parents want it.
Ms Morris's comments echoed those of Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Commons education select committee, who said earlier this week: "We have this great thing that our children aren't learning to read and write, so if we start them earlier that we must raise standards. All I'm saying is that we should think whether that is true."
Recent changes to the teacher-training curriculum appear to support the Government's intentions. From September the Teacher Training Agency will run additional courses for those wishing to specialise in the three to eight age group. "The intention is to raise standards and raise the status of teachers in early education," said a spokeswoman.
A DFEE spokeswoman said: "We are considering lots of suggestions and new ideas as part of the review. There are no secret plans and we're a long way off decisions."
Rosemary Peacocke, vice-chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, said: "This is the first time we have ever heard such extraordinary comments from someone in Ms Morris's position. I cannot believe she would say the same things so strongly, twice in four days, if she weren't serious. I think we can trust her integrity."
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