Children in nursery and reception classes should be tested at the age of four to see whether they are ready to start the national curriculum, according to the National Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Professor Sig Prais, director of the independent research body, says, in a paper in the National Institute Economic Review, that schools should be more flexible about the age ranges in classes and the entry date of formal schooling. A child found not to be ready would stay back another year in nursery or reception classes. He believes if children are allowed to start when they are ready, they are unlikely to fall behind and later require special needs education.
He says this not only benefits the child but also the teacher, who will find a slow-developing child more manageable if the child starts at a more mature age and closer in capacity to the the rest of the class.
"Some form of 'school readiness' testing could be made available to advise parents, the final decision resting with them," he said.
"The issue is whether a child should be put into a class to which his attainment best fits him, or whether his future is to be determined solely by his calendar age since birth, rather than his gestational age."
Professor Prais says that children develop at different and varying rates, but school entry dates are often rigid. "Children born pre-term present a particularly clear anomaly to our current school entry requirement based on birth within a precise 12-month period: a child born two weeks pre-term and just before the critical date determining the required year of school entry enters a year earlier than a child born at full term two weeks later."
Margaret Lally, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education and an early years consultant, said: "This is looking at what can be a problem from the wrong way up. It is the job of schools to teach children at different developmental stages. Many schools fail to adapt to dealing with younger children."
The Government has asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to report by the autumn on "baseline" assessments for children in Year 1. These tests would be compulsory for all five-year-olds. The Labour party is also in favour of assessment for five-year-olds.