Leading early years and parenting experts have condemned the increasing emphasis on tests, targets and learning for very young children and called for formal education to be delayed for up to two years.
The current system promotes a culture of "too much, too soon" and should be reformed to give a greater focus to play-based learning, the experts say in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.
The focus on formal education from the age of five is inappropriate and can cause "profound damage", they say. Children who “enter school at six or seven consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”, the letter says.
Almost 130 experts have signed the letter, including psychologists Susie Orbach and Penelope Leach; the happiness expert Professor Lord Layard, director of the well-being programme at the London School of Economics; and teaching unions the NUT, NASUWT and the Association for Teachers and Lecturers.
Penelope Leach, a world-renowned expert on parenting issues, told TES: “Of course we need children to be ready for school, I think there are some issues particular around communication which are very real – too many children arrive who are not used to being spoken to or read to – but that is quite different from ‘school readiness’ that this government talks about, which is about learning letters and learning numbers at the age of four.
"It is such a limited view of what doing well means, what about things like creativity, physical accomplishments, courage?”
Today's letter is part of a campaign entitled, Too Much Too Soon, which has been launched by The Save Childhood Movement, a voluntary network which campaigns for children’s wellbeing.
Wendy Ellyatt, founding director of Save Childhood Movement, said: “Our common concern is about policies which prioritise achievement over wellbeing, which are not putting the best interests of the child at the heart of everything we do. We need a national debate on the definition of success and the purpose of education.”
A spokesman for Michael Gove, the education secretary, told the Daily Telegraph that the signatories were “misguided”, suggesting they advocated dumbing down.
“These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools,” the spokesman said.
“We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer — a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about 'self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.”
The argument comes just one year after the introduction of a revised early years foundation stage, (EYFS) the framework which outlines what those working with pre-school children must do.
The EYFS was originally introduced in 2008. Although it gained widespread support from the profession for its principles of play-based learning, the requirement for reception teachers to produce a ‘profile’ of children aged five covering 13 nine-point scales was seen as overly bureaucratic.
The revised EYFS includes a slimmed down profile, with children assessed in areas including social, emotional and physical development as well as literacy and mathematics.
But a pilot study of the new profile has warned that changes, especially to what is expected in maths, have made a ‘good level of development’ tougher to reach – with 41 per cent of children judged to be at a good level under the new standards, compared with 64 per cent under the old system.
The government is also currently consulting on whether to introduce a new ‘baseline’ assessment at the beginning of the reception year, which could be used to measure progress to Year 6. It adds that if this was introduced, the profile would be made non-statutory, to avoid an increase in overall assessment. But there has been concern from groups such as the pre-school learning alliance that this is too early to be introducing a formal assessment.