Should children start school at six?

11th August 2000 at 01:00
NO says Doug McAvoy

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

CONCERN over a curriculum that is too formal for young children often leads to calls for the statutory school age to be raised to six or seven, as is the case in Scandinavian countries. While the Scandinavian model for early childhood education is clearly of a high standard, I believe there would be no benefit from adopting this in Britain.

The substantial research evidence which highlights the detrimental effects of "too formal, too soon" cannot be denied. Scientific and educational research has shown that child development does not easily fit with institutional systems reliant on age or academic terms. Yet, by focusing on whether to increase the age of entry to compulsory schooling, we risk avoiding the more serious questions about how we best meet the learning needs of young children.

Such a quick-fix solution should not be seen as the panacea to raising the quality of experience for children. In fact, there is a grave danger that any proposal to raise the compulsory school age from five to six could be seen as an opportunity to reduce investment in early-years education.

In many European countries, where children are not required to attend school until six or seven, early-years' teachers have a lower status and are paid less than those teaching older children. As general secretary of the largest organisation representing qualified nursery and early-years teachers, I would be concerned about any proposal which threatened the status and conditions of service of these teachers.

Arguments are, however, won or lost on the educational benefits of change. Only high quality

early-years education brings proven and genuine benefits fr children and their families. If the Government is serious about a long-term rise in standards and social inclusion for all then it needs to continue to invest more in the training, education and employment of qualified staff.

The welcome introduction of the foundation stage and the accompanying Qualification and Curriculum Authority guidance from next month, will mean that the national curriculum will not start until children begin Year 1. It is hoped that reception teachers will finally be able to resist the top-down pressure to adopt methodologies that they believe to be inappropriate for young children. Debate on raising the starting age in this context is a red herring.

At the time of the QCA consultation on the early learning goals, one experienced early-years teacher commented: "Already in some settings, children as young as two are made to complete worksheets to show parents that they are learning their letters and numbers; if they can't do them, they are 'helped' by poorly trained staff."

In my opinion, the Government needs to continue to build on the advances it has made and concentrate on encouraging a distinctive foundation-stage curriculum. It also needs to redress the kind of unthinking damage caused by school inspectors who argue for greater formality in early-years education without seeming to understand the way that young children learn.

To focus on changing the compulsory school age at a time when the debate around "formal" versus "informal" education is becoming polarised will simply distract from the main issue of what the best educational experiences for children should be. The Government is rightly investing in the early years. Let's not now move the goal posts.

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

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