Classroom 'trauma' for four-year-olds

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Children as young as four are being traumatised by a regime of formal school instruction in the Three Rs that has turned early learning into a straitjacket, teachers said yesterday.

Children as young as four are being traumatised by a regime of formal school instruction in the Three Rs that has turned early learning into a straitjacket, teachers said yesterday.

Delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference in Blackpool said children, especially boys, became disruptive when starting maths and English lessons at too young an age. They were not ready to accept regimented lessons at four.

They called for the formal school starting age to be put back to six, as it is in most European countries.

Mike Moore, the union's president, added that he was concerned at the Government's obsession with tests and targets, which had led to "the straitjacket of education being doled out by robotic teachers day in and day out". He asked: "Where has the fun, excitement, play and discovery elements in our schools gone?"

Under the Government's national curriculum a foundation stage has been introduced for children from the age of three to prepare them for more formal teaching methods in primary school. Goals during that period include learning how to write their names with a capital letter, using a full stop and being able to count to 10.

They are also tested on their ability in a range of skills within six weeks of starting primary school to give teachers an idea of what they can do.

Avril Brown, from Grange Community infants school in Swindon, said: "My fear and that of a lot of my colleagues is that they are pushed into more formal learning that is alien to their needs at too early an age. We should be looking to the Continent where children don't start formal schooling until six or seven."

She said four-year-olds coming into reception classes often had to be taught alongside 30 other pupils with just one qualified teacher and a classroom assistant.

"I had to deal with a four-year-old who verbally abused me on the first day," she added. "On the second day he physically assaulted me because I had stopped him assaulting the other children. He just wasn't ready to be in a class of 30."

Phil Baker, a union executive member from Swindon, added: "We are concerned at the tremendous pressures that are being put on children. Some of them will get screwed up about it and others will say, 'Stuff it – I am not interested'."

Mr Moore said a survey by Cambridge University academics found children reporting a decline in their enjoyment of school in recent years.

On Tuesday, David Miliband, the Schools Standards minister, told the conference there had been a "major, major change" in literacy and numeracy standards at primary level because of the Government's programme "after 40 to 45 years of stagnant achievement".

He said an international study published last week had shown that "English pupils have more books of a wider range, more access to specialist staff and a richer curriculum experience than in most other countries – that is not a cramped curriculum".

'He was so stressed, he couldn't sleep or eat'

Penny Bird removed her six-year-old son from his primary school because she was horrified at the change in his behaviour in only one year.

Geoffrey, now 10, was happy at playgroup and in the reception class of his local primary school in Rugby, Warwickshire. But the problems started in his first year of school.

"His whole personality changed," Ms Bird said. "He couldn't sleep, eat or relax, he was so stressed out.The slightest thing would send him into a tantrum.

"He would come home and play normal games, but it was horrible to watch. He was doing everything in a totally manic way. That was the final straw for me."

Ms Bird withdrew him from school, left her job as a school meals supervisor and has educated him at home ever since.

"Formal learning starts far too young in this country," she said. "I think they have got it right on the Continent where it doesn't start until seven. Learning should be fun for children of that age."

Mrs Bird is delighted with the change in Geoffrey since he was removed from school. "He is a very happy, bright boy who likes to do things the right way," she said. "He was always being told he was doing things wrong. He took great pride in his writing, but in one incident he was told to hurry up. Then he speeded up and was told off for making mistakes.

"The system expects all the children in the class to move at the same pace, but some children are almost a year younger than others, and at that young age that's an awful lot."

Sarah Cassidy