CHILDREN who have informal lessons at six are better behaved, an international study has found.
Six-year-olds in Finland and Denmark are still in pre-school, where the emphasis is on helping them develop as people, and there is far less written work.
Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education found that these children were more co-operative, had better concentration and were more confident about speaking in class than their English peers.
The Danish and Finnish teachers have more autonomy than in their English colleagues over what, and how, they teach.
The inspectors' report found that the Scandinavian countries put more emphasis on speaking and listening, had a slower pace and were opposed to ability groups.
In contrast, English six-year-olds were aware of which ability group they were in and that they were preparing for tests.
Although six-year-olds in England are "ahead" of Finnish and Danish children in reading and writing, an international study in 2000 found Finnish children overtook English children to outperform them by the age of 15. England outperformed Denmark in the same survey.
The research team, which included Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge university, visited 12 schools in England, seven in Denmark and eight in Finland.
The report comes after the primary strategy - which allowed schools to set their own targets - renewed debate on what young children should be taught and when.
The report states: "English children were at school. Pre-school was well behind them, and they had embarked on the serious business of acquiring knowledge."
In Scandinavia, it was more important that six-year-olds developed as people.
But this could lead to able children being held back to "smooth out the differences", as inspectors saw happen in Finland.
Teachers in Denmark and Finland did expect children to cope with more demanding social situations.
At lunchtime in Finland, children sat and talked quietly with their teachers. In contrast in English schools, lunchtimes were generally noisier occasions, to be got through as quickly as possible.
Denmark was also the only country where six-year-olds were not taken by teachers, but by trained "pedagogers".
Class sizes in England and Denmark were similar and about twice as large as in Finland. Children in England had the most cramped classrooms.