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.

Lead photo
Sir Al Aynsley-Green

Professor Emeritus of Child Health

Posted on

Fri 13-Sep-13 21:24:56

(72 comments)

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

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Sat 14-Sep-13 13:43:57

I think Reception, well all years, but the main focus of reception should include emotional and social education, and that a lot of kids would benefit from a structured-play way of learning these.

I think the social and emotional areas of children's learning are neglected and current thinking appears to be that these will be picked up naturally by being with a lot of other kids which is not the case for a lot of people and is quite nonsense like hoping a child will be musical just by being around a piano. This could likely be done alongside the 3Rs but they could have far less push in reception as they are in some areas (not all areas and not all of it is teachers obviously).

Oddsocksrus Sat 14-Sep-13 14:12:42

Our dd is four at Christmas, we are fortunate to be earning enough to be selective in the school we send her to.
Comparing the educational plan for her next few years to that of her friends who will going through there are startling differences in the way they are going to be taught.
At the nursery attached to our chosen school they are entirely focussed on learning through play, forest school, week long projects on different cultures, Colours, letters, numbers counting all taught through some wonderful games. Days are filled with laughter, she comes home happy and grubby.
Reception is just the same, a little more time seated starting to learn how to write things down, parents come in to sit with groups and hear reading in the mornings but learning is fun, delivered in different locations and delivering a fantastic foundation.
Her peers may get things like this at home, but not in nursery, in reception there is a mad rush to get the children 'to a standard' where many of them might not have had any attention or support prior to school, may not know colours or numbers, appropriate behaviours etcetc ,
An extension of a good nursery structure as a pleasant, stimulating educational introduction to school can only be good. Years 1&2 at our school do indeed prepare the children for structured educational experiences but the previous three years have taught them that teachers are great people, that school is good fun and how to learn.

One size does not fit all, the current proposals do not take into account the terrible variance in home care or the quality of nursery provision and appear to want to create children intimidated by schools and learning.
What I am trying to say is that in order for school provision to start later we need to look at what happens in early years provision prior to reception. Integration of nursery, reception and primary provision may be a good formula, I totally agree that formal schooling for many children starts too early, especially those summer born but also because we all develop at different rates and what we currently deliver in the main stream fits only few.

Phineyj Sat 14-Sep-13 14:24:11

Yy to integration of nursery, reception and primary systems. It is so bitty at the moment and it is bonkers that you go from 8-6 nursery provision to reception for half a day and 13 weeks of holiday. Sort that out and then let's talk about the best content.

As a side note, I teach sixthformers, mostly through structured and purposeful play! There is no massive divide between having fun and learning and learning how to concentrate and do something well is also enjoyable.

insancerre Sat 14-Sep-13 15:39:46

I agree with the campaign and fully support the idea of a play-based curriculum.
I am an Early Years Professional and have worked with children for over 20 yars, so I do think I am able to comment and have a valid opinion on this issue.
Children need to learn the basics. They need to learn who they are and where there place in the world is before they start more formal education.
They need to be able to freely explore and investigate their surrounding and their internal thought processes.
They need to be able to understnad and control their own emotions and to be able to read other people's emotions and feelings.
Learning should be a road of discovery, with the journey being the important part- not the final destination.
To be able to do all this, children need well trained and confident early years teachers. Adults who understand pedagogy and the importance of play and self discovery. Adults who can guide and support children.
I am reminded of this poem by Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emmilia
The Hundred Languages

No way. The hundred is there.

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

-Loris Malaguzzi (translated by Lella Gandini)
Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach

noblegiraffe Sat 14-Sep-13 15:45:35

insancerre do you also agree with not teaching the 3 Rs till age 7?

insancerre Sat 14-Sep-13 15:52:42

no, children can be taught them at a younger age, but alongside other important things
i just don't believe that the 3Rs should be the whole focus.

but the three rs aren't the whole focus.

frankly a hell of a lot of time seems to be wasted on 'topics' that i know my son knows the end objectives of before he even starts and which are a nonsense if you've actually been an involved parent with half a brain and the willingness to talk and interact with your child.

i appreciate all children are different but ds would have been massively disadvantaged by spending another 3 years dawdling whilst people who hadn't been parented caught up.

the nordic model always sounds very romantic but as someone upthread, who actually educates her child in such a system, pointed out - they have a massive structure that makes it work and actually they start at the same time or earlier in fact but do it in a different setting.

mam29 Sat 14-Sep-13 20:14:05

I wish i knew then what I know now.

dd1 middle of year birthday age 4.5 started reception yeat at state primary england.

Suppost to be extension of nursery/preschoo.

but in reception she had homework.

started with letters and sounds and reading books.
at end of reception she got scored. efys scores.

she had previously done nursery from 1 and preschool so had no worries scored average or just above.

but year 1 thinsg changed.

less golden time which was chosing and playing.
more homework including spellinsg test and maths
as well as reading books.

Everyone knew what reading level each child was on was very competatve,

they started setting them into ability groups in diffrent coloured tables.

by end of year 1 she was miserable, confidence eroded and aware she was behind a lot of her peers.

she was 1st year to sit phonics test which meant school lots of coaching.

Thankfully she passed but had consequences for ones who dident.

cue year 2 bootcamp

suddenly no golden time very formal struct teacher.

even more homework.

1st week tears im on bottom table for maths and numeracy.

stressed about her targets. like she was some sort of employee.

It became clear her reading level was still below peers.
some teased her.
offered no additional help as passed phonics test.

got easy maths homework.

her freinds who failed phonics test

had their letters ad sound with known senco teacher.
they had less spellings and diffrent spellings on fridays so was obvous to rest of class.

she got told off and so did we as she got her homework wrong.
or we read too much of her reading book.

we moved her after 1 term aother

smaller local primary.
mixed year 1-2 class.
much more informal than year 2 class she lefrt as majority year 1s so lots of free play.

when we looked round she looked round prior moving.

she was amazed how much play within their topic work.
they could play with beads in old school they couldent as might make mess on carpet-this comment made me feel so sad.

we moved her after october half term

wheres shes discretly got 1-1 help.
the ability groups not so obvious
that they praised her for thinsg she good at manners, made her buddy for new person, recognsed she good at sports.
slowly but surly her confidence grew she wasent stressed.
by end of year she caught up where she needs to be,
without the bootcamp approach.

I do wonder how 1 school can get it so wrong.
i still feel horribly guilty she was there so long I had no idea.

its only now shes 7.5 year 3 that think yes should be bit more formal.
Her new school dont give homework for infants just encourage love of reading and read with your child.
At old school even playground they were not allowed to run or go out in rain.snow in new school they embraced it had danegrous things like skipping ropes and space hoppers and encouraged exercise.

so yes from own experiences too much too soon harmed by child.

i read recently on mumsnet primary a mum disaapointed with her childs efys scores as wasent exceeeding new scoring makes it even more obvious whos child is failing.

But they catch up at diffrenet rates im just hoping no long term damage done and she has another really good year.

what we needs is good quality nurseries to age 6
with the full cost being paid from age 4
snot everyone will want fulltime places.
some kids be better off part time with full time option there .
At moment its childcare,

why do we start earlier than other western countries?

My dd is 4.5, she doesn't start school till next August. She could have started this year, but we decided to defer. She has SN a physical disability that means the school day would have been far too long. I don't know what we would have decided if SN wasn't a factor but I do know that it hasn't affected her learning potential.

She goes to preschool 15 hours per week, where she is learning through play. She recognises numbers, can add and subtract physical objects and has become interested in letters and sounds all things I haven't taught her but have encouraged.

I think that if parents in England are disenfranchised by the English approach then they should consider the Scottish approach. That way no child would start formal schooling before 4.5 and parents have the choice to defer until 5.5.

I'm not sure whether parents in England have the choice to defer their summer borns but I really think they should have that choice. It would be better if parents were given some choice over when to start their childrens formal education.

noblegiraffe Sat 14-Sep-13 21:18:03

My DS is August born, he started reception this September but we were given the option to start him next January or April if we chose. He could also start next September but would miss Reception and go straight into Y1.

noblegiraffe is year 1 the same as primary 1 in Scotland or is year R the same I can't work it out. If I had the option to send dd to school from January I probably would. Although I would be concerned about how much she would miss through medical appointments. Had I sent her this year she would have missed every tues afternoon so far and probably another couple before Christmas.

FranSanDisco Sat 14-Sep-13 22:19:22

It would be lovely if the whole of the infants stage (R, Y1 and ") was based on individual children's development stage and not their age. I know Yr 2's who still need the freedom and social learning of Reception and Reception children already reading and writing to the standard of a Yr 2 child. The jump from Reception to Year 1's formal learning is a shock for many and we are setting them up to fail.

at ds's school they decided to make the transition to year 1 smoother by taking the first term to ease over from r style. trouble is though the space. his reception was 2 classrooms plus a third kitchen/art room and an outside covered play area with a lot of free flow time. year 1 was a tiny classroom that in a commercial setting they wouldn't have put more than three staff in with desks.

the trouble is with school and as i'm finding with the nhs that our expectations of standards and facilities and catering to the individual rather than a populations needs etc far exceed the reality or the funding.

littleoaktree Sun 15-Sep-13 09:45:42

In my opinion the main problem is not so much play v 3Rs but the considerable variation between what is considered 'play', 'learning through play', '3Rs' etc and the standards that these are carried out to.

Ds1 is 4.5, he's just started reception. His nursery was very big on the rhetoric of 'learning through play' but actually didn't have staff with the abilities to effectively put this into practice and the children spent most of the time running around and playing and very little learning. Ds loved this initially but by the time he turned 4 he was getting v bored. As a consequence of this experience I did not see any real value in 'learning through play'.

However now he's started reception and his teacher is amazing and they really are learning through play. Ds1 is having the most fantastic time and is full of the exciting activities they have done - eg hunting for a magical pixie in the woodland classroom - as far as he's aware he's just playing however I know he's learning too because he's coming out with lots of new things like 'mummy do you know what animals come out only at night' and then lists nocturnal animals. They're doing the 3Rs as well - looking around his classroom the other day they've been making number trains, making letters out of playdoh, using letter stamps, playing with shapes etc but it is all being done through play. I'm very impressed so far and now I'm beginning to see why a lot of people rave about 'learning through play'.

However simply parroting the rhetoric is not sufficient - poor quality 'learning through play' is just as likely to turn children off learning/make children miserable etc etc as too formal an approach to the 3Rs.

The focus should IMO be on improving the quality of all early education not on the exact age a child starts 'school'.

MasterFlea Sun 15-Sep-13 10:26:59

I'm an expat in a Nordic country so the difference in education is still taking getting used to. I won't be home schooling my dc and will send them to preschool at 6 even though it is optional here.

I've heard from other parents that teaching children to read before school isn't encouraged as parents may not use the approved methods.

So two posters who have met different expectations of sending their children to school at 7. I'm in Finland.

Personally, I'm happy with her starting school later. It allows her to enjoy her childhood more by just playing. No obligations to get homework done or sit still for x amount of time and listen to the teacher. Stuff I found stressful when I was a child.

Solo Sun 15-Sep-13 11:08:03

I have always thought that children started school too young. My Ds (now 15) is an August born child and Dd is is 6 and born in December.
I noticed that both were very articulate from an early age (12 months and 14 months), both knew how to use a knife and fork properly early and Ds was toilet trained at 2yrs and 1 week. Dd was later as I was helping care for my terminally ill Dad so couldn't invest the necessary attention in her. She was 2yrs 9 months. She was also dry within days.
I have noticed that both of them have been 6 1/2 before they have been 'able' to read. Their interest in it only started at 6. That tells me that they just weren't ready at 4 or 5.
Incidentally, I returned to full time work when Ds was 17 weeks old and then when Dd was 6 years old. Both have been similar in their developmental times.

Solo Sun 15-Sep-13 11:14:08

Ps. Ds was cared for by my parents whilst I worked.

it's very tricky because for every person saying their child wasn't ready there'll be another saying they were.

tbh my only big gripe would be the homework. it feels like a bloody test of the parents rather than anything truly constructive and i loathe having it added to everything else we have to get done over the week as a working single mother. i don't like the one size fits all approach of thinking if we don't make all parents do home teaching in a structured, tick box, handed in and noted and written to if you don't do it way then some parents wouldn't bother ever doing any learning stuff with their kids. my 'teaching' of my son and support into his education is more creative and integrated into my parent than obeying lists of soul destroying tasks sent home by the teacher.

ds is six and is expected to read every night (and me to sign to say he's done it or get a telling off), learn long reams of spellings because being more able means more punishment for your parents it seems, plus a stupid learning log exercise that is blatantly about marking mummy for her efforts not the child learning anything and now he also has to use new words in sentences and a whole load of other stuff i haven't got my head around yet because i'm busy.

i suppose in an ideal world where everyone was like me (ha, i do get the irony honest) i'd love a system where actually they did just bloody concentrate on the three r's at school and i did the fluffy extension and personal development at home. the fact i'm actually the one expected to teach him to read, write, spell, present his work etc etc at home whilst they get to dick about going to see santa and talking about feelings and healthy eating and bible stories kind of pisses me off.

incidentally ds goes to a village school - he gets tons of homework, there is tons of expectation that we'll all have time to be making costumes at the drop of the hat and they do way too many trips that are way too expensive.

a few miles down the road my friends children go to a school on a ex council estate - they have very, very little homework and just want parents to encourage reading and a love of learning, they provide costumes for plays and any trips they go on are free or heavily subsidised.

i do think we need a more consistent approach. our school seems to assume everyone is middle class, has a stay at home mummy who can sew, is literate and able to teach their children to read and complete complicated (if you don't have good literacy yourself) homework tasks. schools that can't make that assumption because of the reality of their intake area have to up their game.

Jux Sun 15-Sep-13 14:59:35

My dd wanted to learn to read write and add long before she started in reception. She went to a fantastic nursery from age 2 1/2 where they encouraged children to do the 3 rs if they were interested, but never forced it.

DD really benefitted from it, but in Reception was subjected to bullying from older children (she's August born) who weren't able to. Moving her to a more seneible school, the bullying stopped. However, she'd lost her love of learning - luckily she did get it back, but not for quite a few years.

I think the government and everyone else should stop making decisions based on statistics which get forced onto every child, and concentrate on encouraging inclusivity and accepting individuality in children and adults alike.

I am sick to death of should. I want to hear a lot more of could.

I am sick to death of the lot of you, educationalists and government alike.

Athrawes Mon 16-Sep-13 02:55:27

My DS is just 3, loves recognising letters and numbers and counting on his fingers. He also loves knights and soldiers and finding out which things make Daddy's resistance meter beep, looking after his baby lamby and has a profound sense of justice.
His childminder follows the ECE here in NZ and follows the Emilio Reggio approach - no pushing, no pressure.
I am petrified about sending this compassionate inquisitive wee person to school at five. He will probably be able to read and write and do some simple maths - because he is curious and bright. He will be bored silly by being made to do simple letters and numbers and frustrated that he can't ask questions about what is outside of space. I am NOT advocating a more formal education at 5 - on the surface this is what this bright little boy "needs". On the contrary, I want him to be allowed to continue to probe and question and do extended problem solving. That silly bloody woman clearly has no idea as to how poets and engineers work - we explore. Children explore through play.
I can't home school because I have 120+ teenagers a day to teach...
Maybe by the time he is 5 we can both go part time and home school? If not I will be very very bothersome mother asking about the reception class curriculum and looking hard for play.

WidowWadman Mon 16-Sep-13 08:02:44

"He will be bored silly by being made to do simple letters and numbers and frustrated that he can't ask questions about what is outside of space"

Surely a good school will encourage asking questions?

I think that the system is not flexible enough to cater for the needs of the child. The august 31 cut off is too fixed offering no flexibility for the needs of the child. Dd1 (4.5 on school entry) really struggled in r/ks1, she saw no need to read and hated being forced to give up play. In ks2 though she is thriving, reading has clicked for her and she is catching up/overtaking the early developers.

Ds is not yet 4 yet every day he begs to spend up to an hour reading book after book, he keeps asking for help with his maths and begs to do homework. He just missed the cut off for reception this yeat, but could happily have coped with at least part time more formal lessons.

A more flexible approach - offering teaching for those who are ready would really benefit my dc in retrospect, at the time though I wouldn't like to have been told that dd wasn't ready to learn if little Jonny who was the same age was.

neenienana Mon 16-Sep-13 10:53:35

reception is not play based learning, the children start learning to read and write from the outset. The problem is that whilst this may suit autumn born children, girls in particular, it is very difficult for the younger ones who find it difficult to sit still and concentrate. Bringing in testing for reception aged kids is insane, not too mention adding to the workload of stressed out teachers. Why do'nt we just make the reception environment more outdoors and play focused and bring in more formal teaching gradually in year one. Gove and his allies have seriously lost the plot, I ca'nt take him seriously at all.

Bonsoir Mon 16-Sep-13 12:31:26

"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."

Three year old Mollie might not be ready for formal schooling, but why should those children whose parents were able to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment in their early years and who are ready for formal schooling at 3 or 4 or 5 not be offered it?

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