Is six the best

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TINY figures in over-sized blazers troop into the playground. It is their first day at school. As some run off towards their new teachers with scarcely a backwards glance, others cling anxiously to their mothers’ hands or beg to be taken back to the less daunting surroundings of their nursery school.

In Scotland, where there is only one intake a year, most children start primary one between the ages of four and a half and five and a half, irrespective of their emotional or social development.

From the moment they enter school, the emphasis is on learning to read, write and count. Some children are given homework almost every night.

In most European countries, however, the situation is very different. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, children do not start primary school until the age of six, while in Scandinavia it is seven. Instead they attend nurseries, where the emphasis is on learning through play.

Last week the Scottish Lib Dems suggested bringing Scotland into line with the rest of Europe by raising the school starting age to six.

They also want to introduce a more flexible approach towards children who develop at a slower rate, with parents given the chance to hold their child back a year if they feel they are not ready.

Under the party’s proposal, primary one would effectively be replaced by a transitional year during which children would have more time to develop their social skills. Each day would be of normal school length, unlike nursery classes, which children normally attend either in the morning or afternoon.

"A teacher can be standing in front of a class which includes pupils from the age of four and a half almost up to six, with a wide range of maturity and different abilities, which must make it difficult," Lib Dem leader Jim Wallace said as he unveiled the proposal last week.

"I know many parents have considerable anxieties about whether they send their child, if they are eligible, before their fifth birthday or whether they wait another year."

The party’s new policy has been inspired by fears that in the past few years primary one has become increasingly formal, with pupils pushed to start reading and counting as early as possible.

Within weeks of setting foot in a classroom, many pupils now sit a baseline assessment - a test which looks at their ability to recognise letters of the alphabet and rhymes and to write their names and other simple words.

Some schools will even use these as the basis for early "setting" - the placing of children in similar-ability groups.

In an environment of target-setting and league tables, it is difficult not to be competitive.

But is this an environment where children will thrive, or are they likely to find the ‘pressure cooker’ conditions a barrier to effective learning?

A report - Children, Families and Learning - by the Scottish Council Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, claims children who start formal schooling before they are mature enough often fall behind in the basics and never recover. Bronwyn Cohen, director of the report’s co-author organisation, Children in Scotland, said: "The usual starting age of five may be too early, and four certainly is.

"Some children lose out at the end of the education system because they have not been ready to learn at the beginning. If we don’t look at that then we will have to solve the problem for those whom the system fails much later on."

Five was first established as the school starting age in Britain by the 1870 Education Act. The motives were related to child protection - the government of the time hoped to provide protection from exploitation at home and unhealthy conditions in the streets. But the decision was also driven by employers, since an early school starting age meant an early school leaving age and a younger workforce.

More recently, Britain has retained its early start date because a lack of pre-school provision made it unavoidable. However, as the Scottish Executive claims 85% of Scottish three-year olds and 96% of four-year-olds now attend state-funded nursery education, some experts believe it is the ideal time for change.

Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has compared early education in Britain with that in Switzerland, one of the highest attaining countries in the world.

"In England, in recent years, the emphasis has moved away from play to literacy and numeracy targets," he says. "In Switzerland, however, children go to kindergarten until the age of six. They learn to discriminate between different patterns by playing spot the difference, or they go out to the woods and collect leaves, then put all the same species together.

"They are also arranged in larger groups - perhaps 20 to one teacher instead of 13 - which makes for an easier transition to primary school."

Prais is particularly critical of the introduction of baseline assessments into primary schools, which he claims are a waste of time for both teachers and children. "The baseline assessments are barmy," he says. "The only time they could have a role is for borderline pupils in a more flexible system. Then they could be used to test whether or not a child was in fact ready to start or should defer entry for another year."

John Coe, spokesman for the National Association for Primary Education, believes raising the school starting age could also address one of the government’s pressing concerns - that girls are outstripping boys in many subjects.

"Although obviously there are exceptions, boys are generally slower to develop their language skills. Raising the school starting age to six would allow them to start out on a more level playing field," says Coe.

In Scotland, children start their formal education at the age of six if they attend the Rudolph Steiner schools, which take a more holistic approach to education. There, children between the ages of three and six go to kindergarten, where no attempt is made to push them to read or write. Instead, energy is devoted to stimulating their imaginations and their creative abilities through play.

Philip Shilton, who teaches at the Steiner school in Edinburgh, says the delay means pupils are bursting with enthusiasm when reading and writing is finally introduced. "In the Steiner school children are allowed to develop laterally, making for a more rounded individual," says Shilton, whose three children attend the school.

The problem for policymakers is that research into the pros and cons of later primary school entry is largely inconclusive.

In 1992 for example, the International Association for the Evaluation for Educational Achievement (IEA) measured reading standards in 32 educational systems. The study assessed the reading standards of pupils aged nine and 14.

Children in most of the countries started school at age six, a few at five and a few at seven, and the report included an analysis of the relationship between the age of starting school and reading performance.

Against expectations, this showed that the 10 top-scoring countries had a later starting age. The average school starting age of these countries was 6.3, compared with 5.9 in the 10 lowest scoring countries. But the top-achieving countries were also the most economically advantaged.

When the researchers carried out a further analysis, taking into account each country’s level of development, the trend for older starting ages to be associated with better results was reversed.

However, the differences were small and the children in later starting countries had largely caught up by the time they reached the age of nine. In effect, while the research suggested there were no negative effects to starting school at six or seven, it provided no evidence to show late starters had a clear advantage.

And there seems to be no effort to look at what happens to the fast developers who, by the age of five, are already reading and writing, and are desperate for the challenges of the classroom. Do they become bored and despondent in a nursery they have outgrown?

Professor Eric Wilkinson, specialist in early years education at Glasgow University, believes the best age for moving into formal education should be decided for each child by parents in consultation with nursery staff.

"If the child is not emotionally ready - perhaps gets anxious and upset easily - the less formal environment of nursery may be appropriate, and he or she will catch up in due course," he says.

"Moving from nursery, where there is one adult for eight children, to primary one, where there may be 30 children and one teacher, possibly with a classroom assistant, can be quite frightening."

According, to Wilkinson, however, most potential problems could be overcome by tinkering with the existing system. The Scottish Executive has already signalled a willingness to respond more flexibly to the needs of the individual child. It recently agreed to provide an extra year’s free nursery place for children born in January and February if parents felt they were not yet ready for school, with some local authorities extending the offer to children born in November and December.

In addition, Wilkinson would like to see the Executive issuing advice on the need for primary one to be play, rather than lessons orientated. "I don’t think in most schools there is undue pressure on primary one pupils," he says.

"But a clear set of guidelines would be enough to blow the whistle on the few schools where there is, and send a message out to them to be more flexible."