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

chocolatecrispies Mon 16-Sep-13 13:43:14

Bonsoir, because there is no evidence that early formal learning helps attainment later on, and play based learning done properly is great fun and really effective.

Bumpsadaisie Mon 16-Sep-13 13:56:52

My DD has just started reception. She is interested in letters and numbers and loving school.

It is true that much of reception is play based, but the point is that it is play based within the teacher's timetable. Children can't just wander around in their own little world doing x or y, instead they have 30 mins to play with this then 30 mins to colour that etc.

I'm not complaining as my DD seems very happy. But I am making sure that I am not scheduling too many extra curricular activities and that I don't spend the weekends marshalling her here and there. Yesterday was a rainy sunday and she was as happy as larry, pottering round the house doing all sorts of random stuff just as the fancy took her. I think time to do that is important.

Bonsoir Mon 16-Sep-13 14:16:56

chocolatecrispies - the recent research in France shows that early formal education does help later on (15,000 children are measured every year and increased early formal education is helping the least privileged very significantly).

Plus DC who are ready to read and sit down and get on with work get bored/difficult/depressed when expected to play all day.

MilkRunningOutAgain Mon 16-Sep-13 19:56:42

Neither of my 2 kids were ready for school. DS was not ready socially and was left out of games other kids played a lot until KS2, he remains quite anxious about his couple of friends even at 10. DD wasn't ready academically and by the end of yr r thought she was stupid as she saw other kids progressing when she wasn't. She has caught up nearly now she is in yr 3, but still thinks she isn't clever and needs her self esteem boosting.

I would happily have paid for 2 more years nursery for them. Thy were both happy and confidant at their nursery, by the end of ks1 both of them were shy and anxious and have changed in that they are no longer wanting to explore learning. Before starting school DS loved geography, maths and history. Not any more. DD just wanted to play in the sand pit and loves building things, sand castles, dens, models, anything art and crafty. She wasn't able to do this so much at school.

The school and the teachers are generally lovely by the way, and lots of their classmates enjoy school and seem confident and have loads of friends.

But I do think the yr r teacher pushed my dd to read before she was ready and that the class was in reality mostly teacher led.

pyrrah Mon 16-Sep-13 20:14:09

I've been very happy with what I've seen so far having been very suspicious of state primary education and fearing that my bright child might be bored.

At the primary school nursery they did amazing things. Each half-term had a separate topic... princes & princesses/pirates/the Arctic etc and all the activities were based around that. During Dinosaurs there was a sand table with fossils buried in it that they used paintbrushes to dig up. In the Arctic term, they built an igloo out of plastic milk bottles and painted pictures of penguins as well as learning songs about them which they then presented as a performance to the whole primary school at assembly.

By the end of nursery she could write her own name, count to 100 and recognise most numbers and letters. Twice a week we got a reading book home, and once a week parents were welcome to stay for a couple of hours to join in and see what they were doing. There was a dedicated playground and lots of outdoor play, trips to the local city farm and to the woods. All the children seemed happy and to be coping fine with what they were being taught and the full school day despite not even being 4. No-one was pressured to do things they didn't want to - you didn't have to paint penguins if you didn't want to.

The school takes over 50% FSM and over 70% EAL so not exactly a middle-class cohort.

The current Reception class seems to be more of the same so far and my siblings' children in other areas of London and the country seem to have had the same experiences.

I've purposely avoided 'teaching' DD anything to do with letters, numbers etc and waited for her to become excited about them herself (now I get set endless maths 'homework' by her!) We just did lots of story reading, trips to museums and answered those weird questions with the help of You-tube (mummy, how does food become poo etc). She was totally ready for school at 4.4 years.

I sometimes wonder if all those people talking about 'formal learning' at a young age actually know how these years are taught at school. I've not seen any evidence of children in rows being drilled in the 3Rs.

I've heard that there is a big jump up in Y1 - perhaps that would be the area to actually concentrate on... a gentler transition from Reception rather than trying to convince people that no child should be allowed nearly a number or a letter and god forbid attempt to read a book till they're 6/7.

Bonsoir Mon 16-Sep-13 20:15:26

<shrugs>

Believe what you will. In France all the evidence points to earlier formal education being helpful later on.

And, purely anecdotally, DD and her friends were screaming with boredom with "play" by the age of 5..,

merrymouse Tue 17-Sep-13 06:56:15

Well truss is the woman who tried to push through the daft early year's ratio proposals, and gove has a history of asking for advice from professionals and then ignoring it ( see his history curriculum) so none of this is really a surprise.

'Play based curriculum' does not mean complete free for all and it doesn't mean no state childcare before 6. As my son's old Montessori teacher used to say, along with many others, for a child, work is play and play is work. However, reception classes are taught by teachers, not gove or truss, I think they are still largely play based.

I think Truss's remarks are either genuinely stupid or just misdirection. However if prof AG visited a good nursery/reception class in a non-disadvantaged area I'd be interested to know what changes he would make.

merrymouse Tue 17-Sep-13 08:35:03

Also, children start learning the '3 R's' from the moment they are born, and thinking back, even when I was learning double entry book keeping I learnt through play - slotting in numbers and scenarios to come up with imaginary balance sheets (it's fun honestly - no really...). On the other hand some children love learning rhymes and songs and lists of facts and you only have to look at popular sports in any country to see that humans have a natural love of statistics and lists and data.

The division between play and formal learning isn't that clear cut.

I am clear that politicians very often don't know what they are talking about, and that , not to devalue what schools do, most education comes from home (whether it's letting them loose with a pot of glitter/testing times tables/reading a story). Bridging the gap between what some children receive at home and others don't costs money.

Play based learning is key to a child's development. Ideally, the individual needs of the child would be met - some could be ready for formal education and testing at a younger age, where as some may benefit greatly from longer play based learning.

i think there's a danger in conflating political leaning with educational preferences/beliefs about what's best.

i'm probably as left as you get without being an outright marxist but i honestly both as a mum and an ex teacher think that formal schooling and good behaviour management is important. ds's handwriting won't be improved by play, yes left long enough his motor skills would be better and one would hope he'd still give a shit enough to improve it but the reality is that i remember handwriting books and writing whole pages of letters practising getting them right before we were allowed to move on to using a pen and learning joined up writing.

some things are best learnt by rote, repetition and practice. obviously there also needs to be room for creativity, play, exploration etc but you don't get away from the fact that some things need learning through being pushed, disciplined and repetitive dull practice.

and tbh i don't want to be left to do all the hard work learning by rote practice essential skills stuff so that schools can be left to do fluffy la la. if i'm handing him over to the state for 6hrs a day so i can work, pay taxes and contribute to higher education and society wide targets i expect them to do a good chunk of the drudge work of education.

because a lot of it IS drudge work.

it's not all playing and exploring and being individuals. some of it is pure learning to conform to societal standards and norms of, for example, legible handwriting, sitting still and concentrating, tolerating being bored and learning to be able to tolerate deferred gratification.

to me it's a nonsense to pretend that education is just about learning to be creative and clever and do what you want. tbf a lot of skills required in modern society are the antithesis of those things. if i couldn't tolerate boredom, repetition or discipline i'd be fucked and signing on for the rest of my life.

sorry more.

people forget that a major goal of schools is not just to educate but to socialise. not as in learn how to eat healthily and have safe sex but learn how to cope with societies demands upon you. which includes things like being bored, coping with authority, dealing with unchallenging, uninteresting tasks sometimes.

i know we don't want to acknowledge this and wish life was different but the reality is to be an adult who can keep a roof over their heads and not be a complete burden you have to learn to tolerate these things.

whether you start at 6 or 10 does not change the realities of adult life and what you have to be able to at least seemingly conform to in order to survive. i'm not sure we'd do our children any favours by pretending for ten years or so that life was all about 'you' and your special/favourite/preferred way of learning/working/existing. successful adults finds way to balance their preferences, favourite things and existence with the realities of life.

aside from the three r's THAT'S what school was designed to teach people.

not to mention that if you want every single child educated you have to accept that you'll have more classes needing teaching than individuals with a genuine talent and flair and desire for teaching to lead those classes. teaching is a real skill and even of those who have it many leave rapidly due to pressure and working conditions and lack of pay.

you will never have a ratio of 30 kids per genuinely gifted teacher. there are limits.

friday16 Tue 17-Sep-13 17:09:08

In common, I suspect, with a lot of middle-class parents, I have no conscious memory of my children learning to read. The house is full of text, I think at the relevant time we either didn't have a TV or certainly barely used it, we both read endlessly, there is everything from scientific papers to Good Housekeeping around, and we bought what felt like hundreds and hundreds of books for the children, wordless, simple, more complex. Maybe they learnt at home, maybe at the (wonderful) state nursery school, maybe at primary: we can't recall. It was all seamless and easy.

So it would be easy for me to witter on about "oh, they need more play, more imagination". They were alway going to have an easy time of education, so if they'd started a a few years later, it wouldn't have made a lot of odds. Discussion about all the avenues that inability to read close off was irrelevant: they could read, and did, from an early age. As, in my experience, do the children of most people who claim that early years education is too early.

But what about the kids whose home life isn't as stimulating? Middle-class children from supportive households are developmentally years ahead by six, and that gap continues to grow. Removing reading and writing from schools wouldn't close that: the middle-classes would just teach it themselves, as a sort of samizdat, while others' children were left to sort themselves out. Come 8, the main difference to the present system would be a greater social differentials. I don't see how that's a good thing.

good post friday

i'm inclined to agree that the longer you keep kids away from school the wider the gulf of class and with it educational input will be. later schooling, less social mobility.

i think there is a very strong argument for this and middle to upper class academics may be overlooking it.

also the later school starts the later the chances of picking up on abuse, neglect and, for example, ghettoisation by religion, culture, language etc.

thinking purely on the multicultural aspect the longer you leave kids at home the later any chance of integration and shared identity occurs. for children with english as a second language this is a really significant factor.

you know the more i think about it the more politically and class based this blog and the academic stance it reflects IS.

we've really got to get out of party politics and philosophies being the drivers of policy especially in education.

merrymouse Tue 17-Sep-13 17:52:25

I think the point is that you have to go through the pre-reading 'play' stage before you can learn to read - being told stories helps you to keep a series of events in your head and singing songs helps you to hear the sounds that enable you to learn phonics. Most children will encounter all of this at home, but you can't skip this stage.

As far as I know, you will encounter all of these things in any good reception class. Maybe the fear is that the curriculum for early years doesn't allow enough time for children to do enough of this, particularly those not supported at home or those developing more slowly, therefore some are forced to move ahead before completing this stage?

I don't think anybody has suggested that children shouldn't go to school.

In the end I think it comes down to having the resources to 'follow the child' as they say in Montessori, or admitting that the state's support for education is limited.

I do agree that if you didn't teach 4 year olds to read at school many parents would teach their children at home, if for no other reason than that they appeared to be picking it up.

yy to 'admitting the state's support for education is limited'.

i also believe that we need to accept that not all children will learn enough in a year to move forward to the next year.

as an ex secondary schoool teacher in a literacy based subject receiving year sevens who clearly did not have enough basic literacy to access the curriculum i have to say that the system of automatically moving 'up' a year due to age is... foolish maybe.

if a child has not met the most basic requirements of that year of education then surely it would be better to keep them back a year, consolidate learning and boost confidence etc rather than scoot them forward with pupils who they are way behind and encourage a sense of failure and disengagement. if you already haven't kept up why force you into being even further behind?

i had a friend who i studied with on a post graduate level degree who had been kept back a year in primary school and she swore it was the best thing that ever happened to her. she just was having a 'delay' or wasn't ready and that extra year closed the gap and regained her the confidence and self worth she needed.

i suspect the issue isn't when you start but when you move forward. if there are basic educational attainments you haven't gained in that year of education then repeat it! don't push kids forward whilst falling further and further behind. keep them until they learn the levels required for that stage.

i was damned good at getting 'write off' students c grades at gcse due to maybe just not giving up and making an effort to translate assessment criteria to their level of understanding. that is not easy though when their literacy is five years behind that of their peers and no one has ever said you know what stay here till you've got this and then we'll worry about the next bit.

ok - that's my conclusion actually thinking about my teaching career, my interaction with other people who made it through to PG courses and those who didn't even finish school. what we really need is a system that doesn't move you on until you're ready to move on.

not an age = level system but an attainment = level system.

not sure why the uk is so resistant to this. move on when you've learnt what you need and are ready to do so

insancerre Tue 17-Sep-13 18:31:44

"I suspect the issue isn't when you start but when you move forward. if there are basic educational attainments you haven't gained in that year of education then repeat it! don't push kids forward whilst falling further and further behind. keep them until they learn the levels required for that stage. "
EXACTLY! swalloedafly
and children are not ready at 4 and 5 for more formal learning
the campaign isn't about not teaching children
the campaign is about having a more developmentally appropriate curriculum for children
based on evidence of how children learn and develop
it'ds about getting the basics in place before moving on
which is why the EYFS is called the 'foundation stage'
it's about building on firm foundations
because otherwise it will all come toppling down

then fine - stay in eyfs till you're ready to move on. realities are it would be challenging re: allocation of staff, funding, forward planning etc but what is the point of pushing a child onwards if they clearly haven't consolidated the learning of the current stage?

i do suspect this is the crux of our educational problems.

receiving children into year 7 at secondary with alleged nc levels from primary that bear no relation to the fact that said children can't even write their own name on the baseline assessment paper you've handed out is revealing from personal experience. ignoring that basic literacy gap and pushing forward as if it wasn't there and they were on a level playing field with those of good basic literacy skills is a nonsense and a massive neglect of those students who have been failed thus far by their education.

why do it?

why not just acknowledge this student hasn't reached point 'b' therefore there is no point in shoving them onto point 'd' which they can't access so we'll keep them here till (if) they're ready to move on? if they never make it on it identifies them early on as people who will need additional support and creativity to place them in work. people would make it to the level they could, be given the level of support appropriate to that and targeted appropriately according to their needs.

so going back to the original OP if a child isn't ready to move on reception they stay. if a child is beyond play based reception learning at point of entry they go to year 1. the same 'age' is a nonsense. the same ability level or stage of development is the key.

to pretend that an 'age' equates to an ability level is a nonsense.

make the ability/level of attainment fixed and the age you enter that class flexible and things will make a lot more sense.

Rooners Thu 26-Sep-13 12:15:41

This is interesting. I HE my 6yo and he has just started to show a massive interest in writing, numbers, adding and counting.

I cannot push this stuff, he won't be 'taught', he defiantly telle everyone he meets that he 'just knew it'.

He is learning loads without me even intervening to 'teach' things.

Prior to this he did not want to know.

I haven't time to read all of this but I'm sure that there's evidence in the educational outcomes for children who grow up in Europe, that starting these subjects later makes them do better.

I think the importance of play in a child's early development should not be forgotten - it is the building blocks for later success with the 3r's! Your child's education starts at home, where there are so many fantastic educational toys and games you can use for 'play based learning'. My DD's have a huge collection of educational toys from Galt Toys which they love, and I remember fondly from my own childhood! If children have this kind of educational support at home (and in reception), they should be prepared and ready for formal education at the UK average age.

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