On the map - School starting age - Early-learning lobby wins the day

13th August 2010 at 01:00

What is the most appropriate age for children to begin school? In the days before learning theory was developed, most governments settled on between five and seven. Before that age, learning was characterised by a phase variously called nursery, kindergarten or some other title.

However, shifts in social patterns, women's employment and family structures have combined with an increased acceptance of the importance of early learning in social settings to change attitudes towards four-year-olds in education.

Although the various terms may remain, a four-year-old in a nursery is now more likely to be participating in an education setting rather than just a play experience. But as the graphic shows, such changes are not universal across Europe. Although most countries now have well over 90 per cent of four-year-olds in education, there are still some with much lower percentages - for example, in both Ireland and Greece, where religion still plays a key part in state life and policy, which may influence attitudes. But Italy and France, where the Roman Catholic church has also played a large role in determining the shape of society, have some of the highest proportions of four-year-olds in education.

Finland, a frequent high performer in surveys of international educational achievement, has one of the lowest percentages of four-year-olds in education. However, while Finnish children do not begin primary school until they are seven, from the age of eight months all children have access to free, full-day day care and kindergarten. Finland has had universal access to day care in place since 1990, and to pre-school since 1996.

Reconciling different national terms for the same form or provision is a common problem with international statistics, but the question remains whether some children are starting formal education too soon.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.

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