Structured play is key to learning
In research to be published next month, the Institute for Public Policy Research will argue that structured play and cognitive behavioural therapy should be introduced into the curriculum for three- to seven-year-olds. It is inspired by Finland's approach, long considered to be highly successful and which the TES understands has attracted the interest of the Prime Minister's education advisers.
In Wales, there are already plans to extend the current foundation stage, play-based curriculum, to all three- to seven-year-olds by 2011, though this is less radical than the Scandinavian model.
Similar reforms in England would mean a huge change to the curriculum for five- to seven-year-olds, centred on formal class-based teaching. Younger children already learn through structured play.
The IPPR's research chimes with the findings of the first interim report from the independent Primary Review. It found the school starting age in England was a concern for many parents, with immigrant families thinking it was too young and English parents worried about the sudden transition from play-based to formal learning at the age of five.
In its submission to the review, the National Primary Headteachers Association called for the guided play of the foundation stage to be extended by at least an extra year.
The IPPR is also expected to call for big changes to teacher training, with a greater emphasis on the theory of how pupils learn.
Julia Margo, a senior research fellow at the think-tank, said British pupils lacked "emotional well-being", which was essential for effective learning.
This is due to a combination of factors: a lack of contact with parents, made worse by British working hours; "pub culture"; family breakdown and poor weather. Children also lacked opportunities for activities such as sport and drama, which help them to learn well.
Other European countries suffered one or other of these problems, but only British pupils must contend with both. Ms Margo wants to see parents helped to spend more time with their children and government intervention through school reform.
"Sweden and Finland have different styles of learning for three- to seven year-olds which are not desk-based but structured purposeful play and cognitive behavioural therapy," she said. "That is something we could introduce here if we really want to close the attainment gap."
On teacher training, Ms Margo points to research at London University's Institute of Education which found that teacher trainees only spent an hour on the theory of learning.
Ms Margo said that self-esteem, motivation, application and the ability to control and express yourself were all essential for learning. These added up to the emotional well-being that a Unicef report, published this year, found was lower among children in Britain than any other advanced industrial country.
The Government has introduced a Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programme. But Ms Margo said regularised classroom learning was not the best way to develop social skills.
THE FINNISH ROUTE TO SOCIAL AND ACADEMIC SUCCESS
In Finland there is no compulsory education for the under-sixes but most attend publicly funded day- care centres where they learn
social development and creativity through play.
Liz Brooker from London University's Institute of Education has worked in Helsinki and says the set-up is very different from what is being proposed in Wales. The Finnish system has no academic curriculum, no assessment, no direct adult guidance, and some centres do not even have books.
Children are instead provided with a stimulating environment for free play, much of which takes place outdoors. At six they go into a pre-primary year where activities relating to literacy, numeracy and science are introduced. But there is still no assessment.
Formal schooling begins at seven when there is a sudden switch to desk-based learning. "The assumption is that they have been prepared for learning but not that they will have been prepared by learning," Dr Brooker said.