Let boys stay in the nursery

18th July 2003 at 01:00
More boys than girls have learning difficulties, and one reason is differing rates of maturity in the early years, believes Penny Glenday.

IN one Third World country, a child is deemed old enough for schooling when he can reach over his head with one arm and firmly grasp his ear. It's a remarkably accurate gauge.

Here, we send children to school at five, or at four years and seven months if their birthdate is late February. No one seems to question whether the child is ready and no one seems willing to consider the potential problems.

I remember only too well taking my first-born to school, his trusting little hand clinging tightly onto mine. He was just four and three- quarters, and I was proud of my bright, inquisitive little boy.

Hindsight being a wonderful thing, I now look at my tall, handsome son waiting for his Higher results and wish that I'd held on to him for another year. I come to work as a learning support teacher, and watch boys underachieve and know the futility of sending children to school before their cognitive processes are well developed.

Anyone who has had a daughter will know what I mean. In some ways a three-year-old girl has more maturity than a seven-year-old boy. The research has been well documented - and some boys do have more trouble settling into school, learning to read and obeying rules.

The high proportion of boys to girls with formally assessed learning difficulties is a result of wee boys being loud and horrible when they can't do something - hence all the action to get them recorded. Meanwhile little girls with the same problems keep their heads down and are supported lovingly by friends.

Learning is only fun if you can do it. And you can't learn until you are ready to learn. Put children in a situation where they are out of their depth, and they will fail. It doesn't feel good not being able to read well. So you stop trying.

And the concept of "keeping back" seems to have gone - although maybe if little ones have struggled all the way through Primary 1, repeating the year might just mean that they do learn not only to read, but also to cope socially. Certainly they will be less troublesome when they are older.

Wouldn't it be better to just keep them at nursery a while longer in the first place?

We will never really know how many have behavioural problems, how many suffer from low self-esteem, or how many just don't reach their potential because they were sent to school too early. What is certain is that if children feel confident in their learning, they are not disruptive. And many children who go to school before their fifth birthday do really well.

For some, like my son, the problems don't begin until the transition from Standard grade to Higher.

For they are just not ready to be making life choices, too inexperienced to handle adult texts in English. They are discovering that girls are fascinating, or that beer might taste pretty foul but it is great to be swigging it back with pals.

It seems crazy that, just when their hormones are racing the fastest, we expect our testosterone-charged lads to sit and study. The girls are fine - puberty happened for them years back and, by fifth year, they are self-disciplined enough to do what they have to do.

The fact that girls now perform better than boys is a result of the continuous assessment in Higher Still, which does reflect conscientious effort and diligence.

Maybe we do need to look at innate differences between girls and boys, and maybe consider putting boys to school a year later than girls?

And if that is too radical a concept, and we've also ruled out asking them to reach for their ear, can't we at least ensure that all boys have reached their fifth birthday before we let go of little hands at the Primary 1 door?

Penny Glenday teaches at Brechin High.

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