A testing time for the under-fives

As any reader of the TES letters page knows, nothing is more controversial than the age at which children start school. All the research evidence shows that a bad experience in reception class can put a child off education for life.

So it is not surprising that local education authorities have been going about the business of increasing the number of young four-year-olds in school by stealth. A decade ago, 47 per cent of authorities had a single September entry date. Now the figure is 58 per cent and growing rapidly.

The vast majority have only two entry points: September and January. The result of these changes is that more children are starting school when they are only just four.

Teachers are in a bind. Research suggests that young fours who are in well-staffed nurseries get a better start than those who are thrust into a reception class of 30. Boys, whose progress worries schools and ministers, seem to struggle most.

A TES poll last autumn showed that nearly four out of 10 teachers think children should start school at six or even older. Yet most of those we talked to this week see no alternative to the shift towards a single starting date. Sue Goldring, a reception teacher in Suffolk, said children who start in April "have only one term and find themselves in a bigger class than those already there". The real crunch comes when pupils move into Year 1, where they are expected to cope with formal learning in a big class and a headlong rush towards testing at seven.

Children in this country already start the serious business of spelling and multiplication before many of their counterparts elsewhere. In Denmark and Norway, formal school is delayed until seven, yet pupils there have overtaken their British peers by the time they are 15. The early start to school revealed by the TES survey makes it all the more important to think again about what we teach the youngest pupils and when and how we test them.

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