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Seven fine for social Swedes

OK, you professionals, when do you want them? At what age shall we feed our tender, eccentric progeny into your formal education system? At four, five, six, seven years old? Shall we be laid-back Scandinavians or shall we get them chanting the alphabet at three? Is it a dreadful waste of those elastic little minds not to start filling them at rising-five, or are we making Jack a dull boy with our premature phonic fretting?

The TES curriculum survey thought to ask the question, and the answer was a bit startling. A smallish majority - 56 per cent - clustered round the status quo of four and five, with a maverick 3 per cent opting for "three or younger". But 28 per cent wanted a start at six, and 11 per cent went for seven "or older". That's almost four in 10 teachers who think that delaying formal education would be a good thing - just as Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Select Committee on Education, suggested earlier this year, to a chorus of harrumphing disapproval and accusations that he knew nothing of education. Teachers, on the other hand, do.

And if a large corner of the staffroom is thinking that the fours and fives are too young, we should ask why. Norwegians and Danes, after all, do very well on a later start and carry on doing rather better than us by the age of 15. The education of the human mind is clearly not something you can set down like cooking times for pork.

However, the rebellious four-in-10 and Mr Sheerman must take something else into account; something, perhaps, which was on the minds of the 3 per cent of teachers who wanted to get the moppets safe into school at three or younger. When contemplating the peaceful educational landscapes of Denmark or Norway, with school at seven, you can't help noticing that they have top-quality, high tax-funded childcare on offer from 11-months-old, with educational objectives carefully embedded in it. They are not drilled in spelling or maths, but taught the fundamentals of socialisation, co-operation, song and exercise. If they do take a joyful interest in letters and numbers, materials and nature, then it is encouraged.

Their children are not just "minded", not shoved into nurseries staffed by underpaid young girls, some rather dim and some working illegally and with a poor grasp of English. Nor are they at home with an incompetent, depressed, hung-over or drugged parent; nor are they propped in front of the cold unresponsive television screen all day and half the night, having their alpha waves flattened and eating crisps.

Countries which start "formal" education late, and are successful at it, tend to be those with a strong family culture and excellent nurseries. Some UK citizens have both. Good for them. Many do not. Some five-year-olds turn up in reception classes unable to converse with an adult, sit at a table, share, take turns, eat with a fork or do up their own buttons. Leave them in rubbishy care until they're seven, and you might never claw them back.

Face the humiliation: we're not a good enough society to dare attempt the Scandinavian system. UK law insists on children starting school at four or five (apart from the doughty home-schoolers) because schools are the only places we can rely on them being socialised, learning about structure and behaviour, eating something sensible and not watching telly all day. We enforce early education because primary school teachers are the only adults we can rely on to get them singing "The wheels on the bus" and saying please and thank you.

We use early education as an emergency service. Whether this is fair on primary schoolteachers is another question.

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