Education: Earlier start to lessons leaves British children behind

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Countries where children start formal school up to three years later than in Britain are outstripping us in literacy and numeracy, a new report says. Judith Judd, Education Editor, considers whether British children are being taught too early.

The report uses international evidence to challenge the Government's literacy and numeracy strategy, at a time when ministers plan to test children as young as five in reading and maths.

The report says children in Switzerland, Hungary and Flemish-speaking Belgium outperform their British counterparts in many international surveys of maths and literacy even though they do not start school until they are six or seven. While around two-thirds of British children start formal school at four, children from those three countries attend kindergartens where they are taught skills such as paying attention, memorising and how to co-operate.

Once in school, every Hungarian and Flemish-Belgian child without learning difficulties learns to read within a single term, says the report, the basis of a Channel 4 Dispatches programme tomorrow night.

David Mills, the producer, and his wife, Clare, whose report is the result of a two-year investigation, point out that French-speaking Swiss pupils, who are taught formal reading and writing earlier than their German-speaking counterparts, were outclassed by the latter in the 1992 International Association for Evaluation of Achievement reading survey. In last year's "Third International Maths and Science Survey" (Timss), Flemish-speaking Belgians were well ahead of French- speaking Belgians who start formal schooling in kindergarten.

Boys in particular suffer from an early start to reading, the report suggests. Unpublished data from research covering 27 countries shows that in only four of those did children begin reading at the age of five. Only in those four was there a significant gender gap at nine.

There is no evidence, the report says, that bright children suffer from the later start to reading and formal number work. The Timss survey found that the top 5 per cent of pupils in both Flemish Belgium and German Switzerland comfortably outperformed British nine-year-olds in maths. The writers attack the new government goals for under-fives to be introduced from September which suggest five-year-olds should "recognise their own names and some familiar words" and "write their names with appropriate use of upper case letters".

They say Britain rushes children into formal schooling. "While elsewhere primacy is given to developing confidence and precision in spoken language, here teaching is dominated by reading, writing and recorded arithmetic."

However Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, told Dispatches: "I think reading and writing skills can begin positively and constructively with four- and five-year-olds and I think we are missing an opportunity - we are wasting time - if we don't do that." Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University said the report merited further investigation.