Education: Why four-year-olds are better off in nursery: Parents who rush to put their children in school early should think again, says Sarah Strickland

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CHILDREN are legally required to start school when they are five, yet over the last 20 years the numbers of four-year-olds entering infant classes has grown enormously.

In the Seventies about 20 per cent of four-year-olds attended school; that has now risen to more than 50 per cent. Britain is peculiar in letting under-fives attend infant classes, despite numerous reports concluding that it is a mistake, and that they suffer. Studies consistently find nursery education is better for them.

A leaflet published this week by the National Campaign for Nursery Education (NCNE) says there are several reasons for the growth in numbers attending school so young. Parents are increasingly demanding full-time provision for their children, either because of work commitments or because they are more aware of the importance of early education. With only 25 per cent of children having access to nursery places - most of which are part-time - the pressure on schools to accept children early has grown.

Admitting four-year-olds into reception classes boosts statistics, so it appears that more under- fives are offered educational provision. It is also cheaper than resourcing proper nursery schools. Some schools may not wish to admit very young children but fear losing them to other schools if they do not. Victoria Hurst, NCNE vice- president, believes children under five can suffer greatly if put in an inadequately staffed reception class. 'Anybody under five is far too young to start at school,' she says. 'It can be terribly traumatic for a four-year-old to be shown into a class that might have 30 children and one adult in it, where the noise is deafening and the other children look enormous.'

Parents, she says, need to be informed about what is suitable. 'They often think that to put the child somewhere 'educational' makes sense. They may believe infant classes have a family-type atmosphere, but they don't. Activities are geared towards the national curriculum, which even the Government has declared unsuitable for the under-fives.'

It can also be 'desperately hard' for teachers to cope with very young children who simply are 'not right' for school, she says.

What the NCNE would like to see is the sort of provision that Hounslow, in west London, offers its under-fives. Every primary school in the borough has a nursery class attached to it, catering for children aged three to five, with qualified staff and a nursery nurse. The children leave the nursery in the summer, aged five or just under, and enter a school that they know, alongside friends they have already made.

Jill McIntosh, a senior primary inspector, says that the borough had been working on its nursery provision for nearly 20 years and is convinced that there are great educational benefits. 'Most of the time the four-year-olds are separate from the older children, in their own purpose-built nursery and play areas. But they have the chance to go into assembly occasionally and become familiar with the school,' she says.

'Many have English as a second language, and it gives them a year to get to grips with it. They go up through the school with the same children they met when they were three or four. It is a very solid


For those lacking such opportunities, the NCNE has published a leaflet called When Should Your Child Start School? offering guidelines for parents. It offers a checklist for parents considering an infant place for a four-year-old:

How many children will be in the class?

Will there be one adult for every 13 children under five, as recommended by the Department for Education?

Are the staff specially trained to work with four-year-olds?

Will four-year-olds have their own play space away from older children and toilet and washing facilites near the classroom?

Is there enough space and equipment to allow them to learn through play and talk?

Will the child be able to attend part-time at first while they settle?

Will they have to eat in a noisy, crowded dining hall?

Parents can find themselves actually under pressure to send children to school early, according to Ms Hurst. 'Schools are a bit naughty sometimes - they will tell parents their child will be behind on reading schemes, will miss out on making friends or that if they don't take the place, there won't be one later.' Some parents withdraw children from nursery classes early because of this. The pressure can also be self-inflicted - with parents feeling their children have to sit at a desk and listen to a teacher at the earliest opportunity.

'When Should Your Child Start School?' is available free from the National Campaign for Nursery Education at 23 Albert Street, London NW1 7LU (071-387 6582).

(Photograph omitted)