In a report of a speech given by the Minister of State for Education (TES April 7), Eric Forth is quoted as saying that Britain was "extraordinarily unusual" in its provision of full-time education for five-year-olds and that as most countries started school at six, "we are already ahead of the pack. "
This statement requires comment. Between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of five-year-olds attend services in all EU countries with the exception of Finland and Portugal, and many attend for at least the equivalent of the British school day.
In most cases these children are in the final stages of two to three years' attendance at a nursery school or kindergarten specifically geared to the needs of three to five-year-olds.
What makes Britain "extraordinarily unusual" is the early compulsory school age (only the Netherlands and Luxembourg start as early), admission of children even before that age to primary school (shared only with Netherlands and Ireland), the short hours of attendance on offer to most children attending nursery education or playgroups and the disjointed nature of our provision for three to five-year-olds, which often involves three transitions in less than two years (from home to playgroup to nursery class to reception class).
Moreover, using the Minister's criterion of early compulsory primary schooling, we have been ahead of the pack for a century or more, without achieving long-term leadership in educational performance.
What we need, and have needed for many years, is a full review of early childhood care and education services for children from 0 to five. Such a review would necessarily consider the relationship of these services to primary schooling and whether compulsory primary schooling should not be deferred to six - on condition that children have access to at least three years of early childhood care and education services.
Focusing narrowly on the education of four-year-olds, as the current Department for Education initiative does, continues to avoid facing these larger and longer-term issues.
EC Childcare Network
Institute of Education
University of London
Bedford Square, London WC2