The Starting Age of Child Education at School

Education in the Spotlight in 2009

(photo courtesy of jill.hill)
(photo courtesy of jill.hill)

The Starting Age of Children at School

The Controversy over the Cambridge Learning Review

November 2009 - The debate on the most appropriate age at which children should commence primary schooling has been revisited in the public eye in Britain last week.

The Cambridge Learning Review, a 2-year study headed by lead author Professor Robin Alexander has just been published initiating a vigorous discussion of the merits or otherwise of its recommendations.

In the most in-depth study to be conducted in Britain for 40 years Professor Alexander and his team have advised many new suggestions aimed at improving primary schooling in the country.

Among many findings of the Review was that children should not start formal schooling until they reach six years old. Until then all classes should reinforce play-based learning as they believe that this is a more effective environment in which children can learn rather than beginning formal teaching at the age of five. The Review has also recommended that all SATS exams and school league tables should be scrapped to be replaced by teacher assessments and more localised oversight. But it is the suggestion of raising the starting age of formal teaching of young children that has been the greatest talking point.

This particular finding is at odds with the policy of the UK Government which actually wants to reduce the starting age to four years of age. Vernon Coaker, the Government Minister of State for Schools and Learners, has already stated that he is ‘disappointed’ with the review. But critics claim that the Government is only interested in targets and testing and not on the children themselves.

The Virtues of the Continental Model

Supporters of the Cambridge Learning Review put forward the systems of education on Continental Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries like Sweden who have more success at educating young children and who start their children at six years old. Nations on the Contintent prepare children for formal school, supporting them on developing not only their language but also their attitudes and behaviour within a guided social setting.

Adults who have experienced this type of schooling extol the virtues of a socialisation model that adopts an holistic approach to primary education. It is felt important that activities for children must maintain their interest and motivation to participate and learn. It is seen as more a case of experiencing education rather than simply undergoing a system of indoctrination. Proponents advocate the introduction of field trips, visits to factories to learn how things are made, visits to farms to see how things are grown. The famous Steiner Schools also adhere to the principles of play-based learning followed by later formal teaching and with much success.

In a country such as the Netherlands people speak of extended nursery education as pleasurable, as a voluntary process that they enjoyed and when they eventually began formal education then everything seemed to fall into place. It seemed a more natural progression that suited the child. In France formal schooling only begins at six years old but by then children have attained well developed reading skills and by the age of seven are said to very capable indeed.

The message is that they learn the language more rapidly by undergoing the play-based informality of the pre-school years.The figures in the UK seem to bear this out as it is calculated that for every £1 spent in the nurseries, £6 is saved in primary education.This is presumably because teachers need to expend less work on already thriving young minds.

Are international comparisons entirely valid?

However, international comparisons can be very difficult and possibly misleading as we may be making measures between two entirely different cultures and institutions. Some societies are more ethnically diverse than others bringing different challenges. The United Kingdon and the USA being notable examples where different cultures and languages means that perhaps more flexibility and adaptability is required than in teaching more homogenous groupings.

Equally as important, if not more so, is the class divisions which still exist in the UK where the gap betweeen rich and poor is greater than it was in the early 1900's during the Edwardian era. This is also put forward as another reason why schools in Europe are more successsful. Their socio-economic differentials are not so great as is their whole social and economic infrastructure.

It is already known and accepted that statistically social class correlates with success in education. The more privileged background that you are born into then the more polished an individual you will become both personally, socially and academically. Children from the upper echelons of society generally have more confidence and are able to express themselves with more assurance. Teaching children from the age of six would be hoped to address this problem by helping children from less privileged backgrounds develop more self-confidence and social skills with their fellow pupils.

The views of Professor Alexander

Professor Alexander of the Cambridge Review thinks that spoken language is absolutely essential for the development of mind, the development of the capacity for thought and understanding. He would like to see more encouragement for children to not only think but to talk about what they’re thinking. He believes it is how children will begin learning to reason, to argue and to present a case for themselves.

In other words to think for themselves and take an individual place in the world. He emphasises the importance of structures in the early years of education believing that we should strengthen the quality of provision in these formative years. Unfortunately the staffing of schools in the UK is calculated to fit a 19th Century formula with a narrow curriculum a ‘pauper curriculum’ as he describes it which was necessary over 100 years ago but is now obsolete and needs to be changed.

He promotes more generalist class teachers in a broad and rich curriculum as there is more diversity of subject matter in subjects such as music, history and the arts. The present system as it stands has exposed a lack of expertise across subjects. Therefore he wants more teachers with specialist knowledge in other areas and more funding in primary schools to match that of secondary school spending

Of course the three R’s are still regarded as fundamental as they must be and we should never lose sight of that. A certain amount of rote learning in the foundation stones of reading, writing and arithmetic in education must surely have it’s place. If you can hard-wire the basics of good spelling and mental arithmetic into malleable young minds then that will be an important ability they will carry throughout their lives.

Nevertheless two Ofsted reports in the UK in 1997 and 2003 showed that schools which don’t overly concentrate on the 3 R’s but instead embed them within a wider curriculum are those which obtain the best results. Seemingly it is not a question of reducing the importance of the basics but changing their role and how they are interwoven amongst other subjects.

(photo courtesy of crowt59)
(photo courtesy of crowt59)

Sowing the seeds of a 'dumb downed' society?

Ultimately the style of schooling in the UK is based on an archaic Prussian military state model which, it is alleged, stifles creative thinking and any dissent.

Instead it is designed to produce successive generations of drones shaped to fit the mould and with unquestioning obedience to authority.

Is the present system a relic of the Victoria Industrial era where children are simply pre-programmed for the factories or their 21st century equivalent? Do the elite want to keep the masses in ignorance in what the American writer John Taylor Gatto described as the ‘Tyranny of Compulsory Schooling’ dumbing down our youth to become compliant non-threatening citizens?

Many people from ordinary working class backgrounds felt that childen like them were set up to fail. Indeed some suggest that initially bright children eventually left school years later less educated and feeling less intelligent than when they began. In the past teachers easily dismissed impressionable young children into believing that they were maladjusted and would never amount to anything. Their future seemingly carved in stone, pre-determined and unchangeable. Children were constrained creatively with no free thoughts allowed as they were only deemed fit to thrive as ‘atoms of consumption’ for the mass market in employment and consumerism,

But can any system provide the perfect solution to this long running issue. Every child is different with their own thoughts, personalities and abilities. Therefore surely no system can accomodate everyone as the ‘one size fits all’ approach does not seem to work.

A message from Jean Piaget

One man who may have been a strong supporter of the ideas of Professor Alexander and his team if he were still alive would have been Jean Piaget. His pioneering work identified developmental stages in the cognitive and behavioural growth of young children. He clearly identified stages of this development in terms of age. His research found that from the ages of two years old until the age of seven children were in the ‘pre-operational' stage where ‘magical’ thinking predominated as well as the acquisition of motor skills.

In other words creativity and imagination were uppermost as well as the importance of using their hands and exploring their environment. Indeed children in this stage showed universal difficulties in engaging in logical thought processes.

Beyond the age of seven according to Piaget children entered the 'concrete-operational' stage which would last until they were about twelve years old. In this stage children begin to think in logical terms but only in a concrete fashion, especially in dealing with practical exercises. In later years the ability to think in a more conceptualised way would develop where they could comprehend more abstract ideas.

Surely this supports the view of educationists, writers and parents that formal education should not begin at four or five years old but instead at around six or seven when, according to Piaget, their minds are then ready to accept such structured teaching. Perhaps the lessons of the past may provide the answers to the teaching of the future.

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Comments 3 comments

Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland Author

Thanks Alison and Ethel. I studied some Piaget at University so it is a subject that interests me.

Thanks for stopping by


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Interesting. We spend too much of our lives on schooling, work etc.


Alison Graham profile image

Alison Graham 6 years ago from UK

I found this a very interesting article.

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