Education: Four-year-olds learn the hard way - An early start to school is no alternative to nursery, writes Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
Elaine Cotterill will never know whether her six-year-old son's learning difficulty would have been spotted sooner if he had attended a nursery class rather than starting school when he was just four. She suspects it would.

Mark Cotterill started full-time school in Lancashire just three months after he turned four. His mother felt she had no choice. The school had only one intake a year and the headmaster said he would have to admit another child since funding was based on the number of children.

'It's a good school and I couldn't take the risk that he wouldn't get in,' she says. 'But I regret it. He was too young for full-time school. He was tired and cranky. The playground was full of older children. He had two nasty falls and was frightened to go out.'

Mrs Cotterill says that the school could not have been more helpful: the youngest children now have separate play space and a pre-school group prepares children for starting school. But the regrets remain. She is so convinced that nursery education is best that she has just run a successful campaign to secure a 100-place nursery for local children.

Many parents of pre-school children will be puzzled by her vehemence. Surely children's chances of academic success are improved if they start school earlier? Isn't school at four as good as nursery education?

During the last decade, parents have pressed for children to be admitted to school and the proportion of four-year-olds in ordinary classes has risen sharply. More than 60 per cent of all four-year-olds are now in schools compared with about 44 per cent 10 years ago. Only about a quarter of children are in nursery education.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of coping with four-year-olds in ordinary classes is part of the present survey of under-fives' education being carried out by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education. The attractions for the Government are plain. Since most four-year-olds are already in school, why not leave them there? It seems a much cheaper option than building new nursery schools.

Yet experts agree that ordinary school is not the right place for four-year-olds. Children in nursery classes, they say, should stay there until they are almost five and should not start school early unless classes conform to the Department for Education's guidelines on nursery education. So if the Government decides that provision for four-year-olds should be mainly in schools, it will need to spend money on upgrading buildings and staffing for children in their first year.

At present, four-year-olds' experience in school depends on where they live. Some local authorities ensure that special provision is made within reception classes for four-year- olds. Others expect them to embark immediately on a programme of formal education and make few concessions to their need for more space and different equipment.

For some four-year-olds even that may not be enough. Even some older fours are not ready for school. Annie Lawton regrets taking her son, Jamie, out of a private nursery in Bedfordshire so that he could start school as a 'rising five'. 'For seven weeks we were dragging him into school screaming. It was terrible. Ordinary schools are not geared to under- fives. He kept coming home saying he couldn't do the work,' she says.

At nursery Jamie was learning to read, but his mother says he was set back a term by his first experience of school. 'He missed out on being one of the biggest at nursery. I think that would have given him confidence.'

Experts say that the national curriculum and testing at seven puts pressure on schools to introduce children too early to the formal stages of reading and writing.

Vicky Hurst, an early years specialist at London University's Goldsmiths' College, says: 'It is cruel to make four-year-olds sit on chairs all day, but I was in four reception classes recently where no children were playing. There was no provision for either outdoor or indoor play. A lot of four-year-olds are sitting doing worksheets.'

Research also shows that nursery education saves money. Children who attend nurseries are less likely to be unemployed, criminal or receive social security benefits later in life. They are also likely to be placed around one level higher on the national curriculum's 10- level scale when they are tested at seven. The difficulty for John Major and Mr Patten is that the initial price is high - more than pounds 900m, according to recent Government calculations.

However, the other options being considered would not be cheap. Upgrading classes in ordinary schools for four-year-olds would cost as much because more staff and space would be needed. Improving playgroups would be expensive for the same reason. Another option would be to introduce a voucher system, but that would mean subsidising middle-class parents and, if the voucher did not cover the full cost of the nursery place, the Government would need to ensure that poorer parents were not disadvantaged.

The Government's dilemma is evident. Mr Major has talked enthusiastically about nursery education. Now he has to find the money. Ms Hurst has no doubt that the price of nursery education is worth paying: 'To offer under-fives nursery education is not the Rolls- Royce option. It is to give them a decent diet.' Failing that, cash for a better deal for four-year-olds in schools would be a sensible place to begin.