Off to a good start?

Mike Stevenson

Parents might wonder why children in the UK start school at the magic age of 5. In 1870 MPs chose 5 as the starting age to protect children from exploitation at home and unhealthy conditions in the streets, and it has simply never been changed. Our law states that the school starting age is the term after a child’s fifth birthday, but it is common practice to admit children at the beginning of the year in which they become 5, which means that many start school at the age of 4. Government figures indicate that around 80% of children enter school before their fifth birthday. Additionally, all 3 and 4 year olds are now guaranteed a free, part-time early education place.

By comparison, children in most European countries start school at 6, while the starting age in many Scandinavian countries is 7. This is the starting age in Finland, whose children recently beat those from 39 other countries to come out tops in maths, science and reading. So parents might reasonably ask why we appear to be going against the trend which works so well on the continent, where most countries start compulsory schooling later than us, yet where, by the age of 11, their children are achieving much more than ours.

Arguments in favour of the UK’s early starting age usually stress the need to ensure a level playing field in which children from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to catch up. However, a study indicated that the gap between the achievements of teenage students from professional and working-class backgrounds is wider in the UK than in most other countries.

Despite the reservations, the trend for involving our very young children in the education system continues. The introduction of the controversial Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum and its 69 ‘learning goals’ which children are expected to reach by the time they start school at 5, was seen as a way of raising standards. However, the initiative provoked controversy. Most research confirms the importance of play for children’s overall development. Government claims that the first years of schooling do focus on play-based activities in addition to formal learning. However, many experts argue that in reality, teachers and nursery workers struggle to provide a play-based curriculum because of the pressures imposed by performance tables and targets, particularly in literacy and numeracy.

Nor is it just the professionals who feel the pressure. The phenomenon of ‘pushy parents’ perhaps forces many of us into situations we would rather have avoided, including imposing the ‘three Rs’ onto our children before they are ready. Responding to such competitive instincts has been described as ‘the dark side of parenthood’ which starts with how old a baby is when they first sit up, crawl and walk, and then continues throughout a child’s life. We must ask if we are really doing our children any favours by trying to teach them things they aren’t ready to learn, simply to ensure they appear to have a head start on their peer group. The result can be an overly structured life that leaves children little time to engage in the free play that boosts their creativity and sense of self-sufficiency. Achievements in many areas of children’s lives could end up being overlooked because we are so strung out about what others are doing, and feeling that our own children should be reading better, running faster, winning more prizes and so on.

Most of us don’t have the opportunity to directly influence government policy decisions, so if the law says children start school at 5, we have little option other than to comply with it, whatever our reservations. However, as parents we can do lots of things to profoundly influence how our child copes with organised education.

Instead of worrying needlessly about what they are NOT doing, we can focus on what they ARE doing and recognise how amazing their achievements are in every area of their lives. Learning to climb a tree for the first time, growing a sunflower, cycling without stabilizers and scoring their first goal against goalkeeper Daddy, are just as important as getting excellent grades in their school work or being chosen for the latest drama production. For most of them they will have at least another fourteen years of school in which they can catch up if they need to!

Providing children with too many organised activities may leave them little time to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. It may also cut into our precious family time. If we are too busy just to be together, perhaps adjustments need to be made. Family time is as important as social and educational activities, so spending time with children, playing in the garden, walking in the park, visiting places, talking and reading is vital. This shows children that you enjoy spending time with them without them having to jump through hoops or show off their party tricks learned at whatever activities they attend. It also tells them you find them interesting and fun when they are just being themselves. Nothing bolster self-esteem more effectively!

We should remember that our success as a parent has little to do with our child’s achievements and a lot more to do with how emotionally strong and prepared they are to lead their own lives. Our job isn’t to get them into university – it’s to nurture, inspire and teach them the skills they need to make things happen for themselves. Producing happy, well balanced children who have a love of life is what we might aspire to aim towards.

Above all we should remember that no matter what age they start their formal schooling they should have learned so much from us before they ever get there. For most of them, it is those things they will remember when the majority of their school work is long forgotten.

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