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Should children start school at six?

Yes says Anne Abd El Kader

Is the rest of Europe right in thinking that formal schooling from age five or younger is bad for children?

IN the clamour to teach children to read, write and do sums as early as possible we are in danger of making a big mistake. By pushing children too hard we risk turning them off learning before they have properly tuned in.

As Robert Fulgrum, the leading educationalist and philosopher, said, "Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school. These are the things I learned: Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together. And it is still true. No matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it's best to hold hands and stick together."

Without social skills as an adult, no amount of academic success will get you anywhere. The longer a child is able to practise these skills in the early years, the more confident they become.

That is why it is important that children are not forced into the more formal setting of school before they are ready. Starting a child's formal education at five, or younger, is detrimental to their all-round development. The rest of Europe knows this and starts formal education later. Research has shown that they are right.

The early years of education have a number of advantages for four, five and six-year-olds. It is a time for fun and learning in a secure environment where children know the boundaries and there is a high staff-to-child ratio.

It is a time for hildren to learn to socialise with others from a variety of classes and cultures. For children with special needs, friendships are made, differences are noticed but friends are friends regardless.

Because children of different ages are in the same class, older children can teach younger ones. Teachers, carers and parents are able to work together and look at what interests the child and how to develop and extend those interests.

Young children should see learning as enjoyable and this is more likely to be the case in the less formal early-years environment than in school. If we lay down solid foundations for learning, children will see themselves as successful and become lifelong learners. If a child has not had time to make those foundations secure, when that child starts a more formal education, he or she may become bored and switch off or become disruptive.

There is a wealth of research these days which states that starting children's formal education later enhances their life skills and that gains are made in adolescence and adulthood. These gains are in educational and social development.

I believe that some five-year-olds can cope in a formal situation, but most are not emotionally ready and are therefore set up to fail. This cannot be good for any child. The longer they see themselves as confident learners - able to experiment creatively, make mistakes, learn how to problem-solve and make decisions - the more able they will be to face challenges.

If children are to make the best use of their decade of formal schooling then they need proper preparation in their early years. There is a massive amount of learning to do. Don't rush young children through the magic of it.

Anne Abd El Kader is head of St. Anne's nursery school in Kensington and Chelsea

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