Education Quandary: Is there really a right age for children to start school? Why do we spend so much time arguing about it?

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Hilary's advice

No, there isn't. Children differ hugely in their readiness to start reading and writing – which is what the arguments over the school starting age are about. Any parent with more than one child knows this, while a review commissioned by the Scottish Executive three years ago looked at evidence from around the world and concluded that a perfect school starting age was illusory.

The reason everyone gets so worked up about it is because it brings polarised views of children and education into conflict. One end of the spectrum sees five-year-olds as marvellously self-directed learners who soak up the world like sponges and who should be left alone with the sandpit and the water tray. The other end sees children of this age as bundles of raw potential in need of pushing and shaping, and believes they need formal learning to channel their busy brains and give them a flying start to school.

In a perfect world, of course, children would move at their own pace from play-based learning to formalised lessons, sympathetically guided by sensitive and well-trained, early-years teachers. And this is what is supposed to happen. However, classes are big, good staff are thin on the ground, the early-years curriculum is flawed, and teachers further up in schools put pressure on their early-years colleagues to get going on reading and writing to help them meet national targets. As a result, perfection – as always in education – remains out of reach.

Readers' advice

The right age for children to start school is what we have now, and I cannot see why people want to change it. It suits children of all abilities, and in my experience most teachers strike a good balance between play learning and more structured kinds of lessons. I have two children in school and a third who can't wait to join his older sisters. Young children like being with older ones, which they aren't when they are at a nursery and playgroup, and feel very proud when they join "big school".

Andrea Down, Southampton

Arguments about the school starting age are because people in the educational establishment are more interested in pushing their theories of learning than in making sure all children have a proper foundation in school. This is why so many parents who can afford it put their children into private schools as soon as possible, where they know they will get the best start.

Sonia Ditta, London E5

Children need to start school when they are ready to handle it – and the experience of many countries in Europe shows this is more likely to be at seven, than at four and five. At seven, children are ready for literacy and numeracy and learn the basics very quickly. It's a waste of time and money doing it earlier, and damaging to children's, self-confidence.

Mary Curtis, Bedfordshire

Next Week's Quandary

After 14 years together, my husband and I are getting divorced. Our two children are doing well in school and I am desperate for this to continue. Is there any evidence that divorce harms children’s education, and what can we do to prevent it?

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