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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 March 2007, 02:14 GMT
Giving children the right start
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker graphic
Are we giving our children the right sort of educational start in life?

This week school inspectors from Ofsted had some tough words to say about the failure of nurseries, children's centres and infant schools in England to develop literacy and calculation skills amongst three to five-year-olds.

They also told us that - even at this tender age - girls are pulling ahead of boys.

But should we be measuring the educational standards achieved by children this young?

Isn't it time to give the boys a break?

Why give them the impression that they, or girls for that matter, are falling behind before they have reached five years old?

Children in the UK already start school earlier than in most other European countries.

Yet most international experts say starting formal education too early is damaging.

Perhaps there is a link here with the recent Unicef report that suggested British children were bottom of the table for international happiness and well-being?

So there is a real incentive for primary schools to admit children as young as possible

The creation of a foundation stage of England's national curriculum, for children aged three to five, seems to be adding pressure for an even earlier start to formal schooling.

That may not have been the intention. Nor would it be fair to characterise all the activities that take place in the foundation stage as entirely formal schooling.

But for three to five-year-olds, pre-school provision is increasingly taking place in a school setting and is being approached as a way of preparing children for Key Stage 1.

Meanwhile, as a Times Educational Supplement survey has just shown, most children in England are now starting school aged four, as in Northern Ireland.

This is because schools are finding it more convenient, and lucrative, to have just one intake a year rather than one each term.

With the standard policy of taking what is known as "rising fives" into reception classes, this means that schools are now enrolling children at the start of the academic year in which they will be five - not just in the term before their fifth birthday.

In practice this means that instead of most children starting school when they are almost five, many are now starting when they have barely passed their fourth birthday.

'Long-term damage?'

Primary schools report that those children who have done a full year in reception class are doing better when they move up to Year 1.

So there is a real incentive for primary schools to admit children as young as possible.

However, there is a real risk that we are opting for short-term gains at the expense of long-term damage.

While there is widespread agreement about the importance of early years education, there is a fundamental difference of approach between, on the one hand, preparing children for life, and on the other, preparing them for school.

This was stated very clearly in a new book, Human Capital, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In it, Brian Keeley sets out these different approaches to early years education.

But early years care and education must focus on a broader preparation than just an early leg-up to school performance.

He identifies the tradition found in France and English-speaking countries where "pre-school focuses on getting children ready for school" with an emphasis on "developing knowledge and skills that will be useful for children later on in the classroom".

The other tradition, found in central Europe and the Nordic countries, sees these early years as "a way of preparing children for life", with children encouraged "to play and interact" and develop their social skills.

Keeley notes, for example, that in the Nordic tradition children often spend several hours a day outdoors, which is regarded as a place that's just as valuable for learning as indoors.

The example of Finland is particularly interesting, as children there do not start formal school until they are seven. Instead the state provides care and education from birth.

Educational standards in Finland do not seem to suffer from this late start in formal education; by age 15, Finnish pupils lead the world in school attainment.

'Biggest returns'

This is not an argument against governments getting involved in early childhood care and education. Quite the opposite.

But early years care and education must focus on a broader preparation than just an early leg-up to school performance.

The problem is that governments have a strong temptation to look ahead to the next set of short-term measures.

In England this means the national assessments for seven and 11-year-olds.

Ministers have a lot of political capital invested in ensuring these results rise year-on-year.

Nor is this an argument against the fundamental importance of literacy and numeracy.


The current government has rightly made this a priority for primary schools. But that does not mean that the main priority for children from three to five should be preparation for reading and arithmetic.

In this respect, we may have something to learn from some of the projects that are going on in the developing world, where they are taking a longer-term view of early childhood needs.

These projects, often run by charities rather than by governments, focus on help for child development in the family or community setting.

There is now a substantial body of research showing the long-term gains from early childhood intervention.

For example, a recent paper from the University of Minnesota followed-up on children who had been through pre-school schemes in Chicago 20 years ago.

As 24-year-olds, they showed considerable gains in health, education and welfare compared to peers who had not been through the scheme.

They were less likely to go to prison, end up on state benefits or become parents as teenagers.

Economists increasingly see investment in early years as providing the biggest returns for societies.

These are wider society gains, reducing the financial and social costs of prisons, health care, drug abuse, and unemployment.

But there is a danger that these gains could be jeopardised if the focus of pre-school is too heavily on preparation for formal education.

Making children feel failures in reading and writing before they have learned to interact with their peers, to play outdoors, and to work collaboratively may undermine the other real gains of early education and care.

Ofsted finds early years weakness
06 Mar 07 |  Education
Young pupils' skills gap remains
26 Jan 07 |  Education

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