Too much, too young for boys?

Boys do worse at school than girls. Is our early school-starting age responsible for this trend? Hilary Wilce reports
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The Independent Online

Jake Wayne is five, but won't be going to school in the foreseeable future. "Jake's got an incredible amount of energy. He loves climbing, swimming, playing with his friends," says his father, Mike. "He hates to sit still. If he was in school he'd already be being labelled a problem, and think what damage that does to a child's confidence and self-esteem."

Also, he says, his fine motor skills are not yet as well developed as those of friends who are girls. "But to put it like that makes him sound as if there's something wrong with him. There's not. He's just developing at his own pace."

As home-schoolers, Mike and Deidre Wayne, lecturers who live in south London, are directly tackling a question that is beginning to nag at more and more teachers and parents. And that is: does our early school start set boys up for failure?

Boys, so the argument goes, develop the kind of left-brain skills and fine motor control needed for reading and writing later than girls. So they are forced into formal schooling before they are ready. That inevitably lays down foundations of frustration and disaffection - something that shows up in the way that girls now streak ahead of boys throughout their schooling.

Evidence also comes from abroad. Greg Brooks, an expert in language and literacy at the University of Sheffield, points out that in an international reading survey of nine-year-olds, only four countries out of the 27 surveyed started children in school at five, yet three of those came out in the top half dozen countries for girls outstripping boys. He has followed Maltese children through three years of schooling and found the same correlation between an early school-starting age and a significant and sustained performance gap between the sexes.

"What we need to see is the age range three to six being treated as one developmental stage, with people specialising in working in that sector, and having different training" he says, adding that the idea that, because you have problems with progress at 11, the remedy is to start more rigorous education even earlier is ridiculous.

Steve Biddulph, the Australian therapist and best-selling author of Raising Boys, has long advocated that boys should start school a year later than girls, and many parents can see why.

"When Sam went up from nursery into school last year he went from not being able to wait to go to school to 'I don't want to go'," says Mary Statman, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, who has two boys, aged five and two. "He's academically able, but still finds the pressures too much. It's too formal, too structured, not based around the needs of the child. Even Gus now comes back from his mornings at nursery with things to do at home."

Lynne Powell, a mother from East Sussex, whose sons Alex, seven, and James, five, are both in school, agrees. "Boys are absolutely different from girls at this age. Boys don't sit on the carpet. Alex is very bouncy. His school tries its best, but all schools have to teach to a certain framework and everything goes on results."

The system also puts pressure on parents to get their boys reading and writing, Powell says, but many boys turn stroppy when faced with a reading book or word list to learn. Now she has backed off. "I don't make them read, I read to them, and they are enraptured. We're doing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the moment. The less pressure there is on them, the more willing they are to show their ability."

Jean Snell, the head of Pensilva primary school, in Cornwall says: "We start everything too early and boys come off worst. We want them to conform to small motor tasks too early and let the importance of talking slip in favour of paper and pencil. If children can't talk in sentences, they certainly can't write them." And Snell's worries are echoed by Ofsted, which this May issued a report noting parents' and teachers' concerns about the "sudden change" for pupils going from reception classes into Year One.

Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant and former school head, says that despite recent government moves to downplay tests for seven-year-olds and encourage more creative classrooms, teachers still feel pressures to start formal schooling.

"The big problem with the national curriculum is that we put the foundation stage in last. So there's a conflict between what's coming up from pre-schooling and what's coming down from key stage 2. Also, people with power in schools tend to be dealing with key stage 2 or above, so although they might say 'play's important' they really don't know what they're talking about."

Her solution has been to work with Ros Bayley, an early-years specialist, to develop a detailed curriculum for three- to six-year-olds that introduces language, listening and literacy skills through activities that evolve out of play and exploration. Foundations of Literacy emphasises oral language and uses music, movement and stories to introduce ideas of reading and writing. Children are encouraged to write with their fingers in cous-cous, or tap out a beat on a paper plate with chopsticks. But she stresses this is not "the pink, fluffy stuff' of unfocused play. "If children are left to faff about, they will." Everything in it is closely structured, links in with the national curriculum, and encourages children to go as fast as they want to.

Mandy Lawrence, a nursery teacher at Roskear school, Cambourne, and the mother of twin six-year-old boys, helped trial the activities and is a convert. "I've been teaching for 16 years, and this has quite simply changed my teaching life. The ideas are very simple, but they make all the difference. For example, first thing in the morning, we say hello to every child, make eye contact, and expect them to say something back. We link rhymes with sounds. We get children to write by standing at a table, with a huge piece of paper, while listening to music. They make massive movements with both hands. Boys of this age often still have baby fat around their hands. They can't hold a small pen in a chubby fist. With this sort of approach, they come to everything just as quickly, but the difference is that they aren't turned off in the process."

However, some fear that these sorts of changes could send the education pendulum swinging back towards the bad old days when children were left too much to their own devices. "What we need to do is define much more carefully what we mean by formal learning, because there are both good bits and bad bits," says Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation. Reading research, she says, is clear cut about children needing to learn basic phonics in order to learn to read, "and you can get absolutely outstanding results with very young children. It doesn't have to be wrapped up in that word 'formal'. It can be very fun and child-friendly. It all depends how you do it. I'm very worried about just following the idea of 'readiness', because some children never want to sit down and get on with it."

Whatever goes on in the classroom, though, Jake Wayne won't be taking part for quite a while. "You have to get out of that mentality that it's a race, and that children have to reach a certain level at a certain time," says Jake's father Mike. "And, you know, it's very interesting to notice just how many children who are home-schooled are boys."