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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 August 2006, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
Parental school choice 'naive'
Barry Sheerman
Mr Sheerman chairs the cross-party education select committee
A leading Labour MP has criticised as "naive" a key feature of government education policy in England.

Barry Sheerman, who chairs the Commons education select committee, said giving parents more choice would create some schools which were "bloody awful".

The best way to counter their tendency to work the system was a computerised lottery for places, he told the Professional Association of Teachers.

He also said children should not start formal lessons until they were seven.

Mr Sheerman told the gathering, in Oxford, it was "naive" to think that giving parents more choice would result in higher standards in schools.

It was important to understand parental aspirations.

"But some aspects of parental choice will lead you to a whole section of good schools and some bloody awful schools as well," he said.

"It is not the only thing that is going to bring about improvements."

He admitted the idea of using a lottery for places was likely to be highly controversial.


Mr Sheerman said children would not be "robbed of their childhood" if formal lessons were delayed until they were seven.

4 - Netherlands, Northern Ireland
5 - England, Wales, Scotland, Hungary, Malta
6 - Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria, Portugal, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia
7 - Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania
Source: Eurydice
"Well-led pre-school education is really very important - why should formal school start before seven?

"Why not let early education last until seven? Why not have a pre-school that lasts from three to seven?"

Schooling in England, Scotland and Wales begins at five, and in Northern Ireland at the age of four.

Mr Sheerman referred to the later start systems in Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Denmark.

But he stressed that staff working with under-sevens in these countries were highly qualified, well trained and well respected.

Mr Sheerman suggested pupils should study on a general curriculum from age seven until they were 14.

And he said specialist schools and other secondary schools would have to be built to accommodate such potential changes in educational structures.

"And why don't we have a common school from seven to 14, then let's do the specialism from 14?"

In Finland, which was credited with the best education system in the last major international comparison, children start formal lessons when they are seven and stay in the same school until they are 16, then go to a more academic upper secondary school or to a vocational school.

Mr Sheerman, who has chaired the select committee for the past five years, said his job was to "stimulate discussion".

'Served children well'

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said the formal school starting age of five has "served children well for decades".

"Standards in our primary schools have never been higher," he said.

"All the evidence - key stage results, international comparisons, and Ofsted reports - make this clear.

"We want all children to make progress in literacy and numeracy at an early age, as these skills are critical to their ability to get the most out of learning later on.

"The first years of schooling, focus on play-based activities in addition to formal learning - the curriculum is age appropriate and we actively support teachers to adapt their teaching to the needs of children."

The shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said: "Nothing would dumb down our education system more than delaying the start of formal school by two years."

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