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
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Indy Lifestyle Online

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.