Our third child learnt his poker-face young. He was not yet five when he started school and was tested for his baseline knowledge. “If I hadn’t known your family,” the headteacher explained to me apologetically, waving a chart in front of me, “I would have had to believe that he didn’t know any nursery rhymes. As it is, I had to stop there and not ask him the rest.” Ask a silly question, I could imagine Francis thinking, then you’ll get a silly answer. He had long since moved on from nursery rhymes.
In seeking to reintroduce some form of further baseline testing of five-year-olds, our present government appears not to realise that children may call their bluff. The Save Childhood Movement is fighting against this testing, but also against the very idea of sending children to school by the age of five. Their “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign says that UK schools should follow the Scandinavian pattern of starting formal school at age six or seven.
“In England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later,” they say in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. “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.”
So say I, but not on their terms. I fail to see that there is anything grossly wrong with starting school age five, provided that each individual child is ready. We have been beginning school at that age since before I went to school (I am in my late fifties) and it hasn’t particularly harmed us as a nation. My own children were raring to go, and I can’t imagine having held them back from reading for much longer.
What should be looked at is the way all children are forced to start school at a particular age when they mature at different rates. The flexibility that could be introduced here should be followed through in later years so that their year of birth, and whether a birthday falls in August or September, no longer counts for more than suitable placing.
It is also a great pity that the window of allowing them to start part-time has been shut. My first three children were able to do this, and it eased them into school very effectively. I used to grieve to see little people being carried out of school, aged four, and all but fast asleep.
However, what I really dislike is the hugely expensive and in many cases unnecessary nursery education that has been foisted on our nation regardless of need. Unfortunately the 130 experts of Save Childhood want to promote this system rather than fight it. We have now had government money pouring into nursery places for enough years to know whether or not it is working. If children’s language and social skills on entering primary school are going down, why are we refusing to take a fresh look at what happens before they start?
The Too Much, Too Soon campaigners lament that play is being squeezed out of children’s lives, and they call for a play-based nursery and school education up to the age of seven. But play isn’t about schooling.
True play helps children make sense of the adult world. By following Mum or Dad around, “helping” with tasks such as emptying the washing machine or amusing the baby, they are learning what it is to be family and what it is to work. They are also learning the basic fact that children are designed to orbit round adults rather than the other way round.
Put them instead into an artificial playground of pop-up toys and attendant nurses and they miss this very important lesson. There was a phase in my life when my sister was staying with us and we had five children in the house under the age of three. I learnt that the toys multiply when there are too many small children to do the “real” tasks that toys imitate.
There are two specific skills that children need before they start formal school, and probably only two, both beginning with a “C”. The first is concentration. A child at home can be left to get on with whatever interests it for stretches of time uninterrupted. There will be moments when Mum will need to stop a game, but for much of the day she will be only too happy to see the child absorbed, and will only chip in with the odd bit of encouragement. In fact, a background of boredom helps the child create amusement for itself, the best form of play which many professionals ignore.
The second “C” is conversation. It is obvious that children will converse more when the ratio of children to adults is low. By spending much of the day near their children, parents act as their memories, teasing out their toddlers’ random words and helping to put them into intelligible thought. “Like red door” becomes “Yes, Granny has just painted her door red, hasn’t she, and it looked really nice. Do you think we should paint our door too?”
Our children were unusual in starting school without attending nursery. Francis’s teacher was mystified by his apparent ignorance of nursery rhymes because the others had excelled verbally. Each in turn spoke better than their classmates, and had a much wider vocabulary. This wasn’t because I was a wonderful mother who set up a little nursery at home – I didn’t have time – but having been treated as real children, which included a bit of benevolent neglect, they were all too ready for a new challenge aged five.
In England we do indeed seem determined to cling to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later. Even those who reject an early start to formal education, however, fail to see the more basic error of removing very young children from their homes. It is time that we respected the irreplaceable role of parents in the earliest years and stopped taking children out of the home — too much, too soon.
Louise Kirk writes from the UK where she is the national coordinator of the character education programme Alive to the World. She is also the author of Sexuality Explained: A Guide for Parents and Children.