In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, 127 experts including academics and teachers said they are “deeply concerned about the impact of the government’s early years policies on the health and wellbeing of our youngest children”.
The letter marks the launch of the Too Much, Too soon campaign, co-ordinated by the Save Childhood Movement, which calls on the government to re-establish the early years as a unique stage in its own right and “not merely a preparation for school”.
The campaign calls for more emphasis to be placed on play and wants a “developmentally appropriate” foundation stage to be introduced for children between the ages of three and seven.
Most children in England currently go to nursery at the age of three or four before joining school in the September following their fourth birthday.
The campaign wants the school starting age to be pushed back to six or seven. “The early years of life are when children establish the values and mindsets that underpin their sense of self, their attitude to later learning, and their communicative skills and natural creativity,” the letter states.
“Although early childhood is recognised worldwide as a crucial stage in its own right, ministers in England persist in viewing it simply as a preparation for school.
“The term ‘school readiness’ is now dominating policy pronouncements, despite considerable criticism from the sector.”
Signatories to the letter include former Children’s Commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green and the director of Play England, Catherine Prisk.
A spokesman for Education Secretary Michael Gove said signatories to the letter represent the “powerful and badly misguided lobby responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectation in state schools".
He added: “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.”
Campaign backers also include Purnima Tunuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, and Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and the Early Years.