Too early, too soon

Heretical, perhaps, but Professor Kathy Sylva's doubts about the Government focus on early literacy, aired on this week's Panorama programme, are welcome. The rush to cure the ills of education and society through the panacea of early intervention has always been a high-cost gamble, even if teachers say the initial results are favourable.

The Oxford University professor who advises ministers on early years education has questioned the emphasis on formal literacy teaching for four to six-year-olds. More play and less teaching for children under the age of six is likely to bring better performance in the long term, she says.

Professor Sylva would have found a sympathetic hearing at last week's European conference in Edinburgh on school-age child care. Children in Scandinavia generally do not enter primary until they are aged six or seven, although virtually all are in pre-school education where the focus is very much on play. Are they worse off?

In Sweden, where pupils begin at the age of seven, we learn classes are broken mid-morning to allow for play. Teachers and "pedagogues" work together, combining lessons and play. Where would that dovetail with the 5-14 curriculum guidelines or HMI investigation?

Play appears more important in the Scandinavian model than in Scotland or the rest of the UK. They do not see such a division when the concern is the skills of young children, the European conference heard.

Professor Sylva and our European friends are making us consider our practice. A pause for reflection is no bad thing, not that we are likely to change.

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