MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Fri 13-Sep-13 21:24:56

Guest blog: "There's no need for the three 'Rs' till children are six or seven"

This week, the Daily Telegraph published an open letter from a group of highly-respected educationalists, which argued that British children are starting formal education far too early.

In an unusually strong response, a spokesman for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, called the signatories to the letter - which included former Children’s Commissioner Prof Sir Al Aynsley-Green, 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 -"misguided", and accused them of advocating a 'dumbing down' of education.

In this guest blog, Prof Aynsley-Green says the government’s response was ill-advised - and argues that children who begin formal education later ultimately do better.

Do you think that children should be allowed to play for longer? Let us know what you think on the thread.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green

Professor Emeritus of Child Health

Posted on: Fri 13-Sep-13 21:24:56

(72 comments )

Lead photo

Senior figures argue that education should be play-based till children are 6 or 7

On a trip to a nursery in Newcastle upon Tyne, I was introduced to three year-old Mollie (not her real name). She'd spent most of her young life strapped in a buggy for hours at a time, parked in front of a television set. Common sense says that she needs love and encouragement to explore the world through structured and purposeful play. Michael Gove, though, thinks she should start formal school soon and be subjected to a target-driven focus on the three Rs.

Along with 127 well-informed professional colleagues, I signed yesterday's open letter in the Daily Telegraph which called for children to be protected from developmentally inappropriate policy-making, and an over-early start to formal schooling.

We expressed our concerns over the way that the tests and targets that dominate primary education in England will be soon be foisted on four and five year-olds. We highlighted how high-quality early years education in Scandinavia given by respected, well paid and well qualified staff, coupled with formal school starting at 6-7 years of age, allows these countries to have the highest education standards in the world. We also showed how detrimental it was for this vital period of life to be viewed primarily as a preparation for school, at a time of extraordinary natural learning.

We hoped to stimulate mature, constructive and balanced debate. Sadly, we were subjected to an astonishing tirade from one of Gove's spokespeople in the DfE, reinforced in a tweet from Education Minister Liz Truss:

"These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in some schools. 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."

Readers will form their own opinion of this unprecedented vicious attack on the credibility of the signatories, who included eminent professors, the leaders of all the main Early Years organisations and teaching unions, alongside experienced practitioners and teachers - many of whom are parents or grandparents themselves. My view, supported by the explosion of condemnatory tweets and articles from many others, is that it was unprofessional - as well as being deeply offensive and hurtful to the many hardworking and motivated Early Years and Play Practitioners in England.

High quality early years education in Scandinavia given by respected, well-paid and well-qualified staff, coupled with formal school starting at 6-7 years of age, allow these countries to have the highest education standards in the world.


There is hard evidence on how play should be delivered in early years education settings. It is not a soft option. It is not a romantic delusion. It opens young minds, encourages exploration and human interaction; it stimulates language development and a love of learning alongside development of literacy and numeracy. Play is all about learning. So, it is completely incorrect to say that children experiencing Early Years play-based practices are not being educated. Disinformation like this does not help the debate.

A 2007 study was carried by John Bennett, the main author of the OECD Studies Starting Strong I and Starting Strong II. Twenty of the thirty OECD member countries participated and, for the first time in history, a comparison was made of early childhood education and care models (ECEC) of the said countries. The study highlighted a particular difference between countries that followed what is called the Nordic Approach and those that followed a Schoolification or Pre-School Approach and concluded that the former was much more attuned to the requirements of children up to 6 years of age.

Whilst Children's Commissioner, my team and I worked in early years localities in Grimsby, Tamworth and Newcastle listening to what preschool children themselves felt about being happy and healthy. With patience and skill it was possible to get real insights into the minds of these little ones. There can be no doubt that starting school was the black cloud hanging over so many 2-4 year-olds. Many parents echoed their concerns.

If it gets its way, the Department for Education will soon be requiring all schools to carry out assessment of children on entry to reception classes, in order to measure each child's performance against a prescribed norm. This will inevitably lead to an even more pressured environment for very young children. By all means assess but not in the service of targets and competitive league tables. A recent poll of early years practitioners showed that 97% were against such an intervention.

Canadas Early Development Index (EDI) is an observation-based assessment of the cognitive development all four-year-olds entering kindergarden. The EDI data is not used to rank schools, but strategically by local government to target resources to localities with high educational vulnerability. I would like to see their methods adopted here.

With the enormous range of rate of development and social background in the 11 million children in England, no one size for education can possibly fit all. Nonetheless, an on-line poll by the Daily Telegraph showed that only 7% supported school entry at 4; 39% supported 6 and 29% at 7. The DfE is clearly out of touch with popular thinking.

So, I call on Gove, Truss, Wilshaw and the DfE to start listening to what the Court of Common Sense has to say about play, age of school entry, league tables and tests for young children. Lets have some open and grown up debate about concerns that are at the heart of everyday families including my own with our six grandchildren.

What do Mumsnet users think? Remember it was the power of parents that forced government to launch its Inquiry into the scandal of childrens heart surgery in Bristol. Has the time come for parents to confront this government with its zealous education agenda being implemented with the tactics of the playground bully?

Find out more about the Too Much, Too Soon campaign here, or view the petition here.

By Sir Al Aynsley-Green

Twitter: @AlAynsleyGreen

Mollie's parents need help no external organisation using either play based or formal education is going to help her. She is being neglected and she needs intensive support to develop a secure attachment to her parents or foster carers.

Please don't use the pathos of mollie's plight in your argument. Use the good factual arguments you already have. Explain to us why play bases learning is a good foundation for the education of children of all sorts of backgrounds.

Jojay Fri 13-Sep-13 21:48:51

As I understand it, a hefty chunk of the Reception year should be play based learning, and a continuation of the EYFS.

More formal schooling begins in Year One.

MsMarple Fri 13-Sep-13 22:52:49

I totally agree with everything you suggest. Learning through play works brilliantly in reception and would work well for older children in year 1 and 2 as well.

MrsMargoLeadbetter Fri 13-Sep-13 23:14:28

As other posters have said not sure Mollie's 'story' fits with the rest of your post. It is a shame you started with that/included it, as I read the rest of the article thinking 'where does Mollie fit in'. That aside..

Frankly my biggest issue with schooling starting at 6/7 is the additional nursery/childcare fees I would need to find if state education started a couple of years later. Not very child focused I know but my reality....

Sparklyboots Fri 13-Sep-13 23:20:39

My son is 2 and a half and I have no plans to send him to school. Officially, we plan to 'home school' but unofficially, we're just not planning to send him to school until he's at least six or seven, partially because we're aware of this research and line of thinking, and partially because as his parents we have a sense that four will be too young for him. I don't want him to go to school, not quite be ready for whatever it is they want him to learn, and for him to take from that the idea that he is a failure, or not cut out for school/ education.

Having seen my tiny baby direct his own learning, develop an interest and delight in the world around him, and subsequently absorb and seek out an incredible amount of input and knowledge, I have total faith that his natural curiosity will lead him to continue to learn without the need for an abstracted and structured intervention in this. My own experience of school was that the structure and social context was antithetical to this inner-directed drive. I'll be waiting until my son is robust enough as a personality to be able to withstand the extraordinary injunction to 'stop day dreaming' before I send him anywhere near a school.

I am an education professional and am deeply suspect of the modes of interaction that the school system creates between peers and between children and their teachers. For this reason, whether or not he goes to school will be an ongoing question for us.

5madthings Fri 13-Sep-13 23:22:29

my ds4 has just gone into yr one and i eas thrilled to learn that they are continuing with the play based learning they did in reception. the children choose their activities and its very relaxed and laid back with little sitting at desks/struvtured learning. a week in and ds4 is loving it. the ht mentioned the research on early years and scandinavian learning when thry told us how yr one would work. so some schools are trying to have a more relaxed and play based approach.

i had been worried about the jump to yr one, my elder children struggled with it. but now i have no such concerns with ds4 smile

5madthings Fri 13-Sep-13 23:25:44

sparkly i home educated ds1 and ds2 until they were 9 and 6 for the same reasons. they are summer born as well and were not ready for school two weeks after their fourth nday. i wish i had done the same with ds3 but circumstannces dictated otherwise.

Sparklyboots Fri 13-Sep-13 23:32:58

I'm very happy to see robust critique of Gove and his colleagues' view of education. The suggestion that there is simply a resistance to teaching poor children how to add up is evidence of a lack of critical thinking; Gove et al should recognise that teaching children who are from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds might need to be different to teaching in a London Prep school. That they seem to overlook this is an example of the lack of critical and joined up thinking that typifies the product of an abstract, route based, discipline-heavy/ creativity-light education that Gove seems so impressed with.

fruitpastille Fri 13-Sep-13 23:51:26

I thought that tweet from liz truss was deeply rude and unprofessional. My jaw dropped when I heard it on the radio and I can only hope that it has served to discredit her.

I have been teaching a long time but only dipped my toe into early years recently and am a total convert. I have been lucky to work with someone very experienced and knowledgable. The children have a fantastic start with high quality learning through play, mostly child led. In the first few weeks of september I can now see these same children struggle with the transition to year 1. Many of them would benefit from longer in a play based environment.

Having said that, my own ds thrived in the more structured environment of year 1. It suited his quiet, sensitive personality (he was also lucky to have a teacher that 'got' him). I do think it would have been a shame if he had had to wait longer to learn to read - it opened up so much for him to be able to read independently. So I would like to see at least one of the Rs being taught before 6, if individual children are ready.

We are lucky to have access to a school that doesn't start formal education until 7, yet still turns out educated and motivated young adults. Early pressure may suit a small minority, but my guess is that minority will have parental support.

I do think it is important for parents to take a role in education. DD (3) loves books and reading, so we read to her at home, even though she won't be formally taught until 7.

Perhaps the educational methods have changed so much that some parents feel nervous about taking an active role in education?

Cheryzan Sat 14-Sep-13 07:47:27

My DS (and many, many, many others) was put on interventions in Reception, aged 4.

I'm very pleased he didn't have to wait till 6 or 7 to get the help he needed.

How does delaying formal education help kids like mine? ( He is still on interventions 7 years later. It is def not the case that he would have caught up by himself if the start of formal education had been delayed)

This is my big problem with delaying formal education. It's the kids who need extra help who will be disadvantaged by this scheme.

Adopting a more Scandinavian system all sounds very nice but does that mean that we will also be adopting a Scandinavian approach to actually affordable early years care too? From a parents pov another 2 years of £700+ per month nursery fees for one child fills me with dread.

To change to a later school age start where are the extra 2 years of childcare coming from? The structure for it is not currently in place.

Personally I feel that by the time my DS is 5 he will be ready for school.

Morebiscuitsplease Sat 14-Sep-13 08:43:25

If a child needs extra support then they should receive it. If however more formal education started later, when children are older and really ready, less intervention may be needed!
Nursery education could be free from 4/5 Strawberrypenguin. I think what is right for children is more important than seeing school as free childcare.
The evidence from Scandanavia is clear, it is simply a case of amending the curriculum, I think professionals would welcome this with open arms.

Tee2072 Sat 14-Sep-13 08:57:23

Does anyone know why the end of June/July is the cut off date across the UK? Rather than earlier in the year so no child would start PR/P1 any younger than 4 yrs 6 months?

I have a summer born son. I live in Northern Ireland. He is required to be at school at 4 years 3 months. He's not really ready but I have no choice as home schooling would be a disaster for us.

Either up the age or change the cut off date.

Cheryzan Sat 14-Sep-13 09:02:53

I really think if we upped the formal age the kids who needed help would suffer for even longer than they do now.

When formal education started and they didn't get it they'd still be told they're too young and we need to wait and observe them before we do anything........

Instead of teachers saying 'oh bless, he's only 4. He'll get it when he's ready' They'd say 'oh bless, he's only 7. He'll get it when he's ready'

ie 7 would turn into 4, an age which they're too young to be expected to pick up what's taught in school.

NotCitrus Sat 14-Sep-13 09:11:33

These comparisons with other Euro countries don't really work - just because most children don't start formal 'school' until 6 or 7 doesn't mean they aren't mostly getting education in a play-based setting, called kindergarten or whatever.

My ds has just started Reception but it seems to be following the play-based early years curriculum and be lots of fun - nursery with better toys.

If required 'education' started later, then more children would fall through more gaps. But sounds like the problem is with Reception and Y1 getting too formal and people winding up the children before they start and putting pressure on them to learn 3Rs in a paper-based way. Different issue which I'd hope was easier to sort, though changing public expectations is never easy...

annemarie54 Sat 14-Sep-13 09:20:15

How do children succeed in the '3 Rs'?
By being able to speak in sentences and talk fluently (writing is talking on paper), by being able to manipulate a pen (motor control is developed through drawing, scribbling, bodily movement), by being able to discriminate between and remember different images, to understand that images can relay meaning (reading!) and then there's all the mathematical principles of capacity, weight, volume etc. learnt in the sand pit. Good quality play is the foundation of the 3 Rs.

I have worked for 25 years with deprived children who have learning difficulties. One of the reasons they don't 'catch up' is because of the lack of quality play and vocabulary in the home, also they are less likely to have been to play group. How can a child read and write words they have not heard before and have never used in everyday speech? Good quality playgroups and reception classes make all the difference.

The problem comes when all children are treated the same, regardless of experience before coming to school. Some children are ready for the 3 Rs at 5 (and need the extra challenge if they are to avoid boredom), others benefit from play for much longer, even up to 6 or 7. How do we cater for both groups in one education system?

minipie Sat 14-Sep-13 09:30:14

Why does everyone talk as if it is either play based learning or the three Rs?

I really enjoyed the three Rs as a small child. To me they were just another form of playing.

IMO we should stop treating the 3 Rs as some boring task that children must do at some point instead of playing, and start seeing them as something that (done right) can be just as fun as any other kind of learning.

Pozzled Sat 14-Sep-13 10:10:12

I'd like to see a system where children still start 'school'at 4, but then follow a play-based EYFS curriculum until at least the end of Y1. They could then move gradually to a more formal style of learning through Y2.

I agree with minipie though, it shouldn't be play-based or the 3 Rs, it should be learning the 3 Rs through play. Throughout YR and Y1 they should be listening to and discussing high-quality texts, writing letters and numbers in sand, foam, paint, counting toys and sorting them, adding and subtracting in real-life contexts, etc.

I don't think it's a question of needing to teach children later - I think it's a question of teaching them differently and at their own pace.

JustBecauseICan Sat 14-Sep-13 10:42:19

NotCitrus has hit the nail on the head and I get sick and tired to the back teeth of pointing that out every time the "ooooh on the continent they start at 7" thing crops up.

I am in a country where children start school at 6, or in some cases 7. AND THEY ARE ALL EXPECTED TO KNOW HOW TO READ AND WRITE WHEN THEY GET THERE! And then they start with at least 2 hours homework a night.

They have all been in "formal" education since they were 3, because that is when full-time (20 hours or anything up to 40 if they are in a private one) nursery which, guess what? Works like the first years in UK schools- reception and Y1- a ie lots of play and the beginnings of reading and writing. Any child arriving in elementary school unable to read or write already (and in longhand) would be considered to have been a) severely failed by nursery b) kept at home for 3 years, although in reality this rarely happens.

In short, they do exactly the same things, at the same ages, but in schools which have different names.

Children here do the equivalent of SATS at the same ages as they do in the UK. Dd has done them once and will do them again this year. No-one gets stressed about them, the children are well-prepared and see them as a sort of game, and the teachers know and don't get het up about the fact that they are box-ticking.

I think if the UK educational experts really want children to begin "formal" education at 6 or 7 the first ever-so-slightly-thorny issue of who is actually going to look after these kids all day until they start this miraculous education needs to be addressed no?

noblegiraffe Sat 14-Sep-13 11:04:08

My summer-born boy has just started Reception. Unlike Mollie he wasn't strapped into a buggy and parked in front of the TV and has had plenty of playing and outdoors activities. At home he has started to be interested in reading (no pressure from us, he likes Alphablocks) and can sound out various words.

It's hard to tell from your reluctance to start formal schooling at 4, and saying that children don't need the 3 Rs till they are 7 whether you are actually suggesting that my DS should be held back in his desire to read to meet your timeline. He needs something more than simply playing in order to progress with something that he wants to do.

JustBecauseICan Sat 14-Sep-13 11:07:23

I think that is another huge problem Giraffe. For every child aged 4 who wants to sit in a sandpit all day, there is another one who wants to learn to read and write.

It sometimes seems to me we have somehow come to a position (maybe as a reaction from the formal-formal approach of 40 yrs ago) where only the former is considered to be valid.

Pozzled Sat 14-Sep-13 11:13:23

Noblegiraffe My DD1 was also summer-born, and also starting to read when she began in reception. I still very much support play-based learning, and don't believe anyone needs to be 'held back'. Because that 'play-based' learning should include phonics games, listening to and discussing stories, focused activities with an adult where they play matching games with letters and sounds etc. So if your DS was really interested in reading, he'd be fully supported to learn. But the next child, who isn't yet ready for reading is still challenged and taught without feeling like a failure at 4.

That's how it works in the wonderful world in my head, anyway! grin

noblegiraffe Sat 14-Sep-13 11:48:18

As far as I can see, Reception is play based learning, which is what the OP wants, so I don't understand why he slates England starting school at 4. And he says children don't need the 3Rs till 7, but what does 'need' mean? What if they want it?

If the OP were just slating formal testing and targets in Reception, I would totally understand that. But it has got mixed with school starting age, and appropriate age to learn the 3Rs which is a confusing mess, as far as I can tell. As mentioned, learning to read, write and use numbers, and learning through play aren't mutually exclusive, so why promote the latter while disapproving of the former?

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