Graeme Paton, Education Editor
Formal schooling should be delayed until the age of six or seven because early education is causing “profound damage” to children, an influential lobby of almost 130 experts warns.
The Save Childhood Movement is campaigning for a major overhaul of early education, including a possible delay to the formal school starting age.
Traditional lessons should be put on hold for up to two years amid fears that successive governments have promoted a “too much, too soon” culture in schools and nurseries, it is claimed.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, the group of academics, teachers, authors and charity leaders call for a fundamental reassessment of national policies on early education.
It is claimed that the current system robs infants of the ability to play and puts too much emphasis on formal learning in areas such as the three Rs at a young age. The letter warns that the Coalition is now ratcheting up the requirements with policies that prioritise “school readiness” over free play.
This includes the possible introduction of a new baseline test for five-year-olds in England and qualifications for child care staff that make little reference to learning through play, they say.
The letter – signed by 127 senior figures including Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics, Dr David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at Cambridge University, and Catherine Prisk, director of Play England – suggests that children should actually be allowed to start formal education later to give them more time to develop.
A spokesman for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said the signatories were “misguided”, suggesting they advocated dumbing down.
“These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools,” the spokesman said.
“We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer — a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about 'self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.”
By law, children must be in school by the age of five, although the vast majority are enrolled in reception classes aged four.
Today’s letter says that children who “enter school at six or seven” – in line with Scandinavian education systems – “consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing”. It would mean putting off the start of formal schooling for up to two years for most children, with experts suggesting that they should instead undertake play-based activities with no formal literacy and numeracy requirements.
“The continued focus on an early start to formal learning is likely to cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children,” the letter says.
The letter is circulated by the Save Childhood Movement, which is launching the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign tomorrow.
It will push for a series of reforms, including a new “developmentally appropriate”, play-based early years framework for nurseries and schools, covering children between the age of three and seven.
Wendy Ellyatt, the founding director of the movement, said: “Despite the fact that 90 per cent of countries in the world prioritise social and emotional learning and start formal schooling at six or seven, in England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later.
“There is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards and accountability, but there is surely something very wrong indeed if this comes at the cost of natural development.”
At the moment, most English children start school in nursery or reception classes at the age of three or four and are taught using the Early Years Foundation Stage — a compulsory “nappy curriculum”.
They are assessed against targets set out in the EYFS, which covers areas such as personal and social development, communication and early numeracy, before moving on to formal lessons in the first full year of school aged five.
Children are then subjected to further assessments in the three Rs at the age of seven.
The Government is now consulting on moving these later assessments in the three Rs forward to the “early weeks of a child’s career at school”.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said that the best nurseries and primary schools had a “systematic, rigorous and consistent approach to assessment right from the very start”.
The Government has also pledged to drive up standards of child care, including a requirement for staff to hold A-level style qualifications by 2014.
But the Save Childhood Movement claims that the threat of more rigorous assessments for four- or five-year-olds would undermine children’s natural development.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Sir Al, who was the first Children’s Commissioner and is also emeritus professor of child health at University College London, said: “If you look at a country like Finland, children don’t start formal, full-scale education until they are seven.
“These extra few years, in my view, provide a crucial opportunity, when supported by well trained, well paid and highly educated staff, for children to be children”