Nick Gibb may champion parents to delay school start to age five – but no further

Cath Prisk
Thursday, March 5, 2015

There are clearly local differences in policy regarding when schools insist parents enrol their children across England. While compulsory school age is the term after a child is five, most schools insist they start over a year before that – often despite what parents are saying is in the best interests of their own child.

This is an issue close to Graham Stuart’s heart, as his daughter is summer-born and has just started school. And as chair of the cross-party education select committee he is uniquely placed to ask the Department for Education to justify the evidence underpinning school starting ages. There was a definite hint from him and his colleagues that they suspect cherry picking, but rather than getting in a fight, they instead invited academics, experts and parents to comment on the DfE’s memorandum on the subject, and then held a debate on the issues on live TV with two academics, two campaigners on summer-born children’s issues and Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools. Powerful stuff.

The greatest success of the debate was arguably securing a slightly begrudging but on-record agreement from Nick Gibb that the point at which a child starts school, up to the compulsory school age of five, really should be the parent’s decision. The onus for producing evidence should be on the admissions authority, not the parent, if there is disagreement.

However, for me the issue kept side-stepping the real one – why are we starting school at age four, or even five, at all? Most countries around the world start at six, when children are arguably – given a rich early play environment – more “ready to learn”.

A National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) review of evidence in 2002 on this topic could find no compelling rationale for starting at age four or five, and that formal teaching of reading early on conferred no lasting advantage. The Cambridge Primary Review, the most extensive study of primary schooling since Plowden, found compelling evidence to recommend considering a later start date of schooling. The Rose review, which Mr Gibb cited in the discussion, also advocates extending the play-based child-led approach upwards into Key Stage 1, while retaining the formal “reception/year 1” designation. And the DfE’s memorandum states that the reasons for starting at five were about child protection – removing them from homes and streets – rather than child development.

The main argument for the early start is to boost academic attainment – but international studies comparing children who start schooling at six or seven seem to show no such correlation. There is however seemingly a wealth of research on the importance of play-based pre-school on superior academic, motivational and wellbeing outcomes.

David Whitbread, a researcher from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, picks out one New Zealand study comparing groups of children who start to learn to read at five and seven which indicates that: “The early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.”

This is borne out for me by the experience of two young women I know well. The first could read at four and, with lots of loving support, was way ahead of her cohort. But only up to about fourteen when her peers began to catch up. And when her GCSEs were good but not startling she thought she had failed. Her sister, the youngest of three, was allowed to develop at her own pace and didn’t read a book till aged ten or so. Instead she was hiking up mountains and lighting fires. By fourteen she’d caught up and is now on track to get similar results to her sister, which she’ll enjoy as her own success. She’s also one of the most resilient, confident and environmentally savvy young people I know.

I can give example after example of four-year-olds I’ve taught and known that just weren’t ready, as can every single early years and KS1 practitioner – and playworker, childminder and social worker. Children growing up in households with the TV on all day, children that have never seen books; children for whom English is a second, third or even fourth language and those who have yet to come out of nappies. Just children born early or who just are only four years old. Yes they’ll learn to recite their phonics if taught well, but will they have the confidence to have a go at spelling?? Or will they enter KS2 already saying “I can’t”? While their peers in Switzerland, Sweden and many other countries have enjoyed forest schools and play-based childcare and are now all ready to soak up the learning being offered with excitement.

Some children at the age of four will always lap up reading and writing. But they will do it anyway. If we really want the best for children we’ll give them back a bit of childhood time in settings that really understand them: time to lie in the grass, paint really messy pictures, climb some trees and get really, really muddy.

I’m betting Nick Gibb would be quite horrified by that, but then he was born in September and then put up a year. I get the feeling that Graham Stuart and his colleagues might think differently. We can only hope the policy wonks of all persuasions will read the evidence this select committee has gathered with slightly more open minds and hearts and that they will really think about what is best for children now and in the future.

But if Nick Gibb really does come out of today and instruct his civil servants to tell admissions authorities that parents have the right to keep their summer-born children out of school till they are five and then start them in reception with no fuss, that is definitely a step in the right direction.

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You can watch the debate here and read the evidence submitted in response to the DfE’s memorandum here and here. The committee will not be doing a formal report, but instead is just publishing all the evidence collected to allow policymakers access to it and the opportunity to make up their own minds.

Cath Prisk runs her own social enterprise Outdoor People, and is a trustee for The Wild Network. She was formerly director of Play England?

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