Tell us something new about weans

12th May 2006 at 01:00
There are three things teachers are disenchanted with - public ignorance of the rigours of the job, pointless in-service training and research which is hailed as ground-breaking even if it contains not a shred of information which hasn't already been identified by classroom practitioners as significant.

I read with interest The TESS report on April 21 on Alan McLean's conclusions that boys who start school aged four-and-a-half are disadvantaged and that it stays with them until they finish secondary as Christmas leavers. Mr McLean, who surveyed 1,400 primary 6 children and 1,000 teachers in 50 Glasgow schools, is calling for the debate on school entry to be reopened.

Salient issues thrown up by the survey focus on the fear that teachers may mistake immature behaviour in boys for inability, the fact that teachers tend not to consider the age of each individual in the class and the effect on engagement and motivation of going to school too early. We have known all this for a long time.

Professor Robert Goodman (British Medical Journal, August 2003) tested the hypothesis that younger children in a school year are at greater risk of emotional and behavioural problems than their older peers. The participants in the investigation were 10,438 children from England, Scotland and Wales.

His findings showed that Scottish children born in January and February and sent to school at age four-and-a-half have the odds stacked against them. Teachers frequently forget to make allowances for younger children. This poor start affects not just the early school years: the effects persist into secondary school, influencing university entrance and beyond. Sounds familiar?

No one then should be surprised to learn that going to school at four-and-a-half is bad news for everyone but especially so for boys who seem to need all the support they can get to activate the desire to learn.

Scotland is out of step with most of Europe and the rest of the world which, on average, adopts age six as the time to go to school. What drives us to shove our infants into school at such a tender age?

Childcare in Scotland is either non-existent or prohibitively expensive as anyone who needs it will tell you. This makes an early school starting age popular with the parents. In a desperate attempt to justify sending their children, parents talk up how they are "ready for school".

Quite what that means is always difficult to assess. It is true that some children show reading and number awareness while very young, but this cannot be an argument for teaching all children literacy and numeracy skills at an early age.

I have experience of this myself. My younger daughter Amy - now aged 21 - was a Valentine's Day baby and therefore eligible to go to school at four-and-a-half. She was bright, quite confident and of above average height. I considered sending her to school at that young age. The experts I consulted - the nursery teacher and the primary 1 teacher - were both adamant that an early entry to school was detrimental to the academic and emotional development of all children.

They both maintained that, regardless of how mature a four-year-old appears, the same child a year later will be much more able to deal with the toils of school. I respected their judgment and they were proved right.

Within six weeks of starting school at age five-and-a-half, Amy was reading and I'm sure that deferred entry was a significant factor in her subsequent academic achievements.

Finally, I loved the following comment by Alan McLean: "Five-year-old boys are built to play - they are like dogs. Putting them in a seat and asking them to sit all day is incompatible with their brains."

It took me a moment to clock why it resonated. Most secondary S6 boys are much the same.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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