Does starting school at four cause damage to children?
Education experts claim children should spend more years playing rather than in formal classes
A LETTER from education experts claiming early schooling is causing "profound damage" to children has sparked debate about the age at which formal lessons should begin.
More than 100 academics and teachers have signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling for children to start school at six or seven rather than four or five.
Among the signatories are Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics, and Dr David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at Cambridge University.
The letter calls for more emphasis in the curriculum on learning through play and says children who enter school at six or seven "consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing".
Catherine Prisk, director of Play England, who put her name to the letter, told BBC Radio 5 live that a child's ability to learn could be weakened if they start school too early. "There is evidence to show that if a child is given too much directive time it does undermine their development," she said. She called for more play time to help build confidence, resilience and skills such as making friends.
"If kids at a very young age feel confident to climb a tree they can do that scary thing called learning to read," she said.
Wendy Ellyatt, group founding director of the Save Childhood Movement, which circulated the letter, 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."
But a spokesman for Education Secretary Michael Gove described the experts who signed the letter as "misguided". He 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."
Gove's spokesman also points out that children in other countries who start school later have usually been in nursery or kindergarten.
"We shouldn't be talking about getting children in school later," says Daily Telegraph columnist Tom Chivers. "We should talk about getting them in school, or rather pre-school, earlier."
Chivers points to research that shows quality pre-school education is one of "the most cost-effective ways of changing the course of deprived children's lives" by reducing arrests, increasing earnings and improving IQ later in life.
"The academics are right in their letter that we need to ‘fundamentally rethink our early years policies'," he says. "First, start by getting poor children in pre-schools for those early years." ·