Schools minister calls for children to have an extra year at nursery

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The Independent Online

Schools should be allowed to delay the start of formal learning until children are six, the school standards minister Stephen Timms said yesterday.

Local education authorities should decide at what age children in their area start formal schooling, Mr Timms told the Local Government Association education conference in Liverpool in his first speech as Schools minister. Asked whether he would permit children to have an extra year of nursery education and start school when they were "rising six" rather than "rising five", Mr Timms replied: "What I would say at this stage is that a lot of these decisions will need to be made locally. It will be a matter for local education authorities to decide what is best for their areas."

Mr Timms added that he would be "having a very careful look" at all the research evidence on the benefits of delaying formal teaching as already takes place in Sweden and Denmark. By law children must currently start school the term after their fifth birthday, but in practice most schools encourage parents to enrol pupils at the age of four.

Graham Lane, chairman of the LGA's education committee, said there was widespread support for the idea of delaying the start of school among council leaders. "This will be a big change but there would be long-term gains." Because nursery provision is now almost universal. he added, it would be practical for children to spend an extra year in nurseries.

Councillor Paul Clein, the chairman of education at Liverpool City Council, said that giving children an extra year of nursery education "would allow them to find things out for themselves through play, imagination and exploration." The debate about the best age to start formal learning has been controversial. Denmark and Sweden are among the countries which allow children more time for informal learning, arguing that youngsters must develop coordination and social skills before they are introduced to reading and writing.

Some research has also suggested that children make better progress in later life if they are allowed more time to learn through play rather than being pushed to learn literacy skills.

The Government was accused of over-formalising early education when it introduced a "foundation stage" curriculum for three to five-year-olds in September last year. By the age of five children are now assessed against a range of "early learning goals" which require pupils to count up to 10, write their own names and know the alphabet.

Launching the early years curriculum in 1999, the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead argued that there was little doubt that children benefited from "structured learning" and that there had been a "sea change" against allowing them to learn through play.