Children may start school at four in education shake-up

Change is vital to help summer-born pupils who are lagging behind in exams, says government inquiry
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The Independent Online

Summer-born children should start their compulsory schooling at the age of four, a major government inquiry into the primary school curriculum will recommend tomorrow.

Plans for the biggest shake-up to primary schooling since the introduction of the national curriculum 20 years ago will be unveiled by Sir Jim Rose, the former Ofsted head of school inspections.

His report will recommend that summer-born children start school in the September term after their fourth birthday in response to research showing that they fare worst in national curriculum tests at 11 and 14 – and that a late start to schooling can hamper their A-level performance and chances of going to university.

The move has the support of ministers – but is bound to prove controversial with academics who claim that children in the UK already start formal schooling too early at five. They argue that much of the rest of Europe delays formal education until six or seven and still performs well in international tests. Scandinavian countries, in particular, delay entry into formal schooling until seven yet outperform UK schools.

Sir Jim will acknowledge that there are mixed views over an early start to schooling – and will suggest that summer-born children could begin with part-time schooling of, say 15 hours a week. He will also suggest that enough time for play is included in the first year of the formal curriculum – to avoid "hothousing" youngsters.

"Parents need to be given the facts so they can make an informed choice about when their child starts school because evidence suggests it can have a major impact on the rest of their life – particularly if they come from a disadvantaged background," Sir Jim's report will say.

The report has the support of the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls, who said: "Sir Jim's advice is that there is an education premium for a summer-born child starting school earlier that no parent can ignore. But Sir Jim recognises, as I do, the concerns parents have about their child starting school with older children.

"Teachers shouldn't mix up maturity with ability. I don't want a child wrongly held back as being low ability in primary school when it's their age that's the problem."

Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded that there was an "education penalty" for August-born children who tend to do less well in national tests than their autumn-born classmates.

Figures show that 55.2 per cent of August-born girls and 44.2 per cent of August-born boys gain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE – compared to 60.7 per cent of September-born girls and 50.3 per cent of September-born boys. A boy born in September is 25 per cent more likely to go to university than one born in August. For girls, the difference is 20 per cent.

Christine Blower, the acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, gave warning that part-time schooling could actually reduce the amount of education that summer-born children receive.

CLASS WARFARE

For starting compulsory schooling at seven: Many European countries argue that children benefit from a more play-related environment at a kindergarten in their early years, rather than formal lessons. They point to international performance league tables in which countries that start late do just as well or better than the UK.

For starting at four: The argument being put forward by Sir Jim Rose is that summer-born children are at a disadvantage – starting their formal education a year later than those born in the autumn. Research backs him up. He is anxious for there to be an emphasis on play in the early years.

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