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Switched off in their infancy

The possibility of infant pupils competing for a starred grade, like a national curriculum level 3* at the age of seven, makes you wonder how far the categorisation of young children should go. Early judgments are often frail, and remorseless pressure to succeed can tow in its wake the notion of failure where none exists. While some children seem to be highly competitive from birth, others recoil.

Even A-level pupils, better able to rationalise at an age when some competition becomes inescapable, can be made to feel their AAB is a dud in a finely-graded system, where only top marks are seen as success. Hot-housed infants may think they are incapable when they still have huge potential.

A six-year-old boy we interviewed in a research project told us: "I think I'm a good reader at school. I'm not a good reader at home. I can't read my books at home." His parents were trying to push him through the children's classics they vaguely remembered reading in their own childhood, but before he was actually ready for them, so he became frustrated and demoralised. In their early years, young children desperately size up how they appear to the world. We are their mirror. Inside each of them is a delicate trip-switch, metaphorical rather than real, which has an "on" and an "off" position. Turn it to "off" and the vital drivers of learning soon close down - curiosity, imagination, attentiveness, the amount of time devoted to any task.

This is not an argument against challenging children intellectually, giving them stimulus, or pointing out their mistakes. It is a reason for not assigning definitive labels prematurely. Many parents and grandparents still bear the scars of being regarded as stupid when they are not. Their trip-switch was turned off, so they paid the price: a lifelong lack of confidence in their own ability to learn.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," "I'm too old for computers now","I didn't do very well at school myself", you hear such self-deprecating remarks from adults every day. Young children may live to be 100. Switch them off early and they face 80 years of aversion to new knowledge and skills after leaving school, a grim prospect.

That is why I am uneasy about starred grades for twinkies.

Where will this restless urge to win the infant competition end?

"My six-year-old has just got a grade 3* in maths."

"Well my four-year-old got a distinction on baseline school entry tests."

"Mine did that at three."

"Really? That's nothing. My two-year-old has read War and Peace twice."

"Retarded, is he? Well I can't wait for my baby to be born. She's already a marvellous pianist, passed her grade 7."

"That's pathetic! One of my husband's sperm has composed a symphony and two operas."

I don't want to be stuffy about these things, however, so I might start my own testing agency, Opportunities to Rush Educational and Social Stigma. We at OPPRESS will provide exams for starred grades even before formal education begins, avoiding the creation of a ninny society where young children do not know their place. Our 3* test is guaranteed to keep switches in the "on" position.

Time allowed: three hours.

1 Compare and contrast Tinky Winky and Dipsy as late 20th-century icons, commenting in particular on the semiotics of the Teletubbies landscape.

2 Examine the place of thiamine and riboflavin in infant breakfast cereals.

3 Goldilocks - engaging character, or thieving simpleton your grandparents think you should read about?

4 Calculate in metres the average distance covered in car journeys at the point when you ask, for the first time: "Are we there yet?"

5 Write a critical account explaining why you insist on watching Scooby Doo when the villain always turns out to be the bloke who showed them round at the beginning?

6 Discuss the morality of nipping your younger sibling's arm when no one is looking (and describe some good ways of doing it).

7 Explain your parents' reasoning for weekly violin lessons, when you hate them, refuse to practise, and sound like a strangled cat.

8 Justify your action on holiday last year when you wet yourself rather than be dragged round yet another cathedral.

9 Hothousing - if you are the plant, what is the fertiliser?

10 Explain why Auntie Florence always has a dewdrop on the end of her nose.

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