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Committee chairman, Barry Sheerman
"Starting school at five is right"
 real 28k

Margaret Lochrie, Pre-School Learning Alliance
"Report fails to address loss of playgroups"
 real 28k

Thursday, 11 January, 2001, 12:16 GMT
'Danger' of early learning pressures
nursery scene
Early learning through play is best, says report
The increased emphasis on early years education raises a danger of youngsters being put under too much pressure to learn, MPs say.

And they "slap the government's wrist" for proposing that childminders should be allowed to smack children in their care and smoke in front of them.

The Commons education select committee says in a report that children under five should learn mainly through creative play, in classes of no more than 15 per teacher.

If you start the formal learning early on, you can actually damage the formal learning later on

Barry Sheerman
They say parents are being pressurised into enrolling their children in school reception classes before they are ready.

The committee's Labour chairman, Barry Sheerman, paid tribute to the effort the government had put into improving early years provision and getting the state, voluntary and private sectors to work together in "very healthy" local partnerships.

Starting age

But it was important to look to the future and not to assume that the extra 6.5bn the government had put into the sector was enough.

"None of us can shrink away from that - it's too important for the future of our children," he said.

barry sheerman
Barry Sheerman: "Much still to be done"
Having looked at the excellent provision in Denmark, where children start formal schooling at the age of seven, the committee felt that five was still the right age to start.

"But giving children increasingly good pre-school experience is very important - as long as you don't start using that as an excuse to start regimenting children in schools, in little desks, with one teacher for 30 pupils, " he said.

"If you do that at three and four, that is wrong. It's wrong at five."

The best system involved children starting "proper school" at five but in a reception class with a good staff-pupil ratio and a gradual move into formal learning.


"Some people ... believe that the earlier you start children reading and writing and doing formal instruction the better.

"All the evidence that we took, from every side, goes against that argument," Mr Sheerman said.

School starting ages
Northern Ireland - 4
Great Britain - 5
France - 6
Germany - 6
USA - 6 or 7
Denmark - 7
Norway - 7
Tricia Pritchard of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses welcomed this.

"Over-emphasis on formal education and abstract concepts of literacy and numeracy before age five can result in a sense of failure. Early failure can lead to long-term underachievement, disaffection and even truancy," she said.

"We could learn from some of our European neighbours, where children start school later than in the UK but still achieve better academic results."

Parental involvement

The MPs stress the importance of parents' involvement in their children's early learning.

They say health, social services and education departments should work together to help parents with relatively few advantages and resources.

"We recommend that the government should work with BBC Online and other innovative providers to produce appropriate programmes on parenting," the report says.

The MPs say they are concerned that pressure is put on parents to get their children into school at too young an age, for various reasons:

  • the need for schools to "capture" pupils to get funding
  • parents feeling they will miss out on the school of their choice unless they get in early
  • schools being cheaper than other childcare alternatives
  • a single September date of entry in many local education authority areas
The committee wants the government to review the "practical limitations" on the way parental choice operates.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said that, in a survey it had commissioned, only 15% of parents said they felt pressured.

Smacking row

The committee also "slapped the government on the wrist", as Mr Sheerman put it, over new guidelines which say childminders should be able to smack young children, and smoke in their presence, if their parents permit it.

The government is sticking to this policy in spite of vociferous opposition from organisations representing childcare workers.

But the report points to evidence of the health dangers attached to smoking around children.

Margaret Lochrie
Margaret Lochrie: "Evidence shows younger children can lose out"
"The guidelines ban shaking as a punishment but would allow childminders to smack children with the agreement of their parents," it adds.

"This is totally unacceptable in our view in any setting, but particularly where the carer is often working in isolation."

The Department for Education said the report failed to distinguish between safety and abuse on one hand, and rights of parents to their own discipline policy on the other.

Margaret Lochrie of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said she was disappointed that the report did not address the issue of private and voluntary playgroups' closing because of competition from the state sector.

A Tory education spokesman, John Hayes, said the government's own figures showed early years education was "in crisis" with 30,000 fewer nursery and playgroup places and 20,000 fewer registered childminders than in 1997.

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