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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
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

    Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links