Can we learn from American schools?

Cutting and sticking? For six-year-olds? Kate McCann had doubts about the US system. Two years later, she's convinced English children start learning too young

This time two years ago, my daughter Rosie was getting used to life as a "kindergartener" in an American elementary school. This was actually the second time she'd begun her education. The first time had been the September before, when, aged four-and-a-half, she'd started at the reception class of a West Country primary school.

The apparent backward step was necessary because we had relocated to America, where children begin their education later than in England. And to say that it was a culture shock is rather an understatement. In our new town, kindergarten was only half a day long and had the academic rigour of a nursery school.

Delaying my daughter's education for a year felt, to me, like a huge leap of faith. Every ingrained English middle-class instinct I had told me that children start school at four, not five or six: that this was a mistake and that my child would forever be behind in her schooling.

Of course, at this stage, I'd conveniently forgotten how worried I'd been about the overly-academic focus of Rosie's reception class the year before. By the end of the six-hour academic school day, Rosie had often been overtired and uncooperative. The required nightly reading homework was just too much for her – and sure enough, she became a reluctant reader.

But no, here in the US, I had forgotten all this and was suddenly feeling very anti-kindergarten indeed. My child was light years ahead of these American children – surely she should be in first grade.

Predictably, in those first few weeks, Rosie was bored in school. "It's too easy," she kept saying. One day, she brought home a piece of paper on which was printed a large letter "S". She'd dabbed glue onto it and then sprinkled on sand. So, that had been the day's lesson. "S" is for sand. I wondered what her West Country classmates had been up to. Probably writing their first novels or calculating Pi to the power of 10.

In late October, at our first parents' evening, we asked the teacher if Rosie could be moved up a year. Actually, we pretty much begged. She looked at us calmly. "Rosie's in exactly the right spot," she said. I felt quite desperate. I wondered if coming to America was a huge mistake.

Then something changed. Rosie relaxed into her new life and it turned out that kindergarten suited her much better than reception had. Now, she was able to spend far more time doing the things she loved. There were art lessons and music classes and innumerable creative projects. She was excited to be making a gingerbread house to mark Halloween and a leprechaun trap to mark St Patrick's Day. She painted and drew and practised her sounds and letters in an unhurried atmosphere of creativity, fun and play.

My daughter had been shy and a little out of her depth in reception. But here she blossomed into a confident child – the type who would look an adult in the eye or put her hand up eagerly to answer a question in class. It was lovely to see. And because of the shorter school day and the lack of homework, when we did read together at night, it became a fun shared activity rather than a chore.

I now find myself utterly convinced that children are far better off with a later, gentler start at school – and it has raised serious doubts in my mind about the English system.

I'm not the only one. Last week a massive independent inquiry into primary education recommended, among other changes, that children should not start formal learning until they are six. This, said the in-depth report from a distinguished group of experts at Cambridge University, would avoid the sense of failure encountered by children who struggle with reading and writing at four or five.

English children are eligible for school places if they have turned four before 1 September, with some local authorities offering January or April as entry points for younger children (although from September 2011 all children will be offered a single starting date in September). School becomes compulsory the term after a child's fifth birthday.

This means England's children are among the youngest in Europe to start school – only Northern Ireland, with a compulsory age of four, starts children younger. Sue Rogers, head of learning, curriculum and communication at the Institute of Education, London, thinks it is high time this issue was discussed. After all, the convention of children starting school in the year of their fifth birthday dates to 1870 at the start of compulsory schooling and was based on economics (the earlier children started school, the earlier they could leave and join the workforce) rather than any evidence that this age was developmentally appropriate.

It may be tempting to look overseas for educational role models to emulate – but that can be tricky. Take Finland, for example, where children start school at seven and are noted for their maturity and eagerness in the classroom. But education experts say Finnish is one of the easiest languages to learn, which is probably why such high reading scores are achieved there. No, the answer to this question lies within our own shores, tangled in political pressures and cultural expectations.

Experts say an early start at school would not be so much of a problem if the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), the play-based curriculum that covers children from birth to five, was allowed to run as originally intended. Nansi Ellis, head of education policy and research at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says: "What we have in England is a crossover between pre-school education and school education that could be quite a nice jump between the two."

As conceived, the EYFS should offer four-year-old children a chance to learn valuable lessons about phonics, syllables and oral language through fun activities like puppet shows, stories and clapping games. And it's important to get this right because a study into the effectiveness of early years education found that its impact is still picked up in the test scores of children aged 11.

But teachers and academics alike say the EYFS is going wrong because some schools allow the pressure of constant pupil assessment – and ultimately the highly political League Table rankings at the end of key stage two – to squash the fun and play out of the reception year. Hence, a four-year-old child who should be running around outside may be sitting on a carpet reciting sounds with the rest of his class (a practice one academic called "stupid" for this age group) because the school wants this child to get a head start at key stage one. Notably, the Cambridge report also recommends the scrapping of League Tables and Sats. Unfortunately, the Government has rejected the report, which is nevertheless endorsed by every education union in England.

Helen Brown, head of St Mary's Catholic First School in Wool, Dorset, supports the "learning through play" spirit of the EYFS framework and she speaks with the clarity of a long-time teaching professional. The issue, she says, of whether some children are too young to be starting school at four is just not valid if you are offering a good play-based reception year, with activities tailored to children's particular developmental needs. Perhaps we should be turning the question on its head. Not "Is my child ready for school?" but rather "Is the school ready for my child?"

But here's where the cultural expectations kick in. Perhaps parents themselves, many of whom have never questioned the fact that children start school at four, now need to be convinced that a later start at formal learning is actually beneficial. I'll be honest: despite the evidence in front of my eyes that my daughter was blossoming in her very unacademic kindergarten class, I worried all year that she was somehow missing out on her education. It wasn't until she started first grade the following September that the penny dropped. I realised then that by the time Rosie and her classmates were six going on seven, they seemed to have got "play" out of their systems. They knew they were expected to learn and were eager to do so. Rosie leapt into that challenging first grade curriculum with unbridled enthusiasm. By the end of the year she was reading fluently and tackling chapter books, the holy grail of the first grader. It seemed proof positive that a more mature child will devour information like there's no tomorrow.

This is why it doesn't bother me that my son, at five years and four months, has only just started school. If James had started British school at four, with his tenuous grip on a pencil and his inability to sit still and concentrate, I'm convinced we'd have had a serious problem on our hands.

Several of James's classmates were "held back" by their parents last year. They could have started kindergarten in 2008, aged five, but are starting this year, at six. "Holding back" or "redshirting" is a right – even a middle-class aspiration – in the US. Some parents want to give their children an age (even size) advantage over their classmates and they can, because state law says children only have to have started first grade by seven.

As for me, I thank my lucky stars that I've been able to give my children such a gentle and inspiring start to their school lives. And I'll say a heartfelt thank you to the to the elementary school teachers of Glastonbury, Connecticut. You've taught me an important lesson.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
news
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Graduate Sustainability Professional

    Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

    £100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor