Leading article: The pre-school lessons to learn

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The Independent Online

The most comprehensive investigation into standards for early-years pupils since the introduction of the foundation stage has unearthed worrying evidence that the speaking and listening skills of four-year-olds are weak when they start compulsory schooling.

In addition, their communication, language and calculation skills are lower than expected. The report, from Ofsted, the education standards' watchdog, looked at 144 early-years settings including nursery and reception classes, and concluded that not enough time is spent developing these skills in pre-school children. Something may need to be done but there is a danger that, if the pendulum swings too much to formal drilling in the three Rs at too young an age, the lives of tiny tots will not contain much fun. A balance has to be struck.

Instead of recommending more formal education for three-year-olds, perhaps we should accentuate the positives to emerge from this report. In particular, we should praise the early-years settings visited for indicating better-than-expected results in terms of children's emotional and physical wellbeing. So much attention has been devoted to deploring the number of young children who sit for so long in front of the television that it is encouraging to note that the young children seen by inspectors appear to be emotionally well-adjusted.

However, it would be wrong to brush off the concerns of this week's report - particularly the finding that boys, in particular, lack the attention span to concentrate in lessons when they start school and the confidence to speak up in class. Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the Commons' select committee on education, announced recently that he planned an inquiry into testing and the early years. In particular he said he wanted to look at whether, instead of moving to too formal a schooling at a young age, we should be considering whether tiny tots start school too young.

He suggested that the committee would examine what happens in many European countries where formal schooling does not start until the age of six. Such an investigation cannot come too soon. It should be wide-ranging and thorough so that it can inform the impending review of the primary curriculum.

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