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Scandinavian infant formula

It is good to see a report that opens up discussion rather than shutting it down. The Office for Standards in Education's study on the education of six-year-olds in England, Denmark and Finland will help us, as a nation, to consider how we should educate young children and what sort of adults we want them to become (see page 10).

How should we think about ability? And how do we resolve the dissonance between the play-based foundation stage and the more formal infant curriculum? The report doesn't shy away from the complexity of the issues.

There is no abstract "best" way.

In Finland, formal schooling doesn't start until seven, and 15-year-olds come top of international literacy comparisons - but this does not mean a later starting age will improve reading here. Finland has a very strong "culture of the book", a stable society, and a two-year maternity leave.

School starting age is a bit of a red herring, since most Finnish and Danish five-year-olds are in some form of education. The bigger question is what do they do there? These countries place much more importance on the way the children develop as people, rather than what they know and can do.

English six-year-olds are more advanced in the 3Rs. But in Finland and Denmark, the main emphasis is on oral work, personal and interpersonal skills and cooperation. This seems to lead to better behaviour, with a blurring between educational and social talk.

"In answering questions and volunteering opinions, they did not expect to be judged by either the teacher or their peers," says the report. English children's answers were more likely to be followed by teachers' evaluation of that answer, so "talking in front of the rest of the class carried a higher risk".

Learning, says Vygotsky, is a social process. Government policy is gradually coming to recognise the importance of speaking and listening. But these must not just be an add-on extra. The more teachers genuinely value what children say, the more their confidence will increase.

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