Should children really be sent to school aged two? I’m not sure I was ready at five. A picture of me on the
first day, in grey flannels, an oversized bottle-green jumper and with a “bowl-head” haircut shows a lost little soul. Having to wear a uniform and address grown-ups formally instead of by their first name, all that lining up and sitting still, being made to read aloud in front of your peers and the shame of getting it wrong – I remember the terror.
The suggestion from Ofsted’s chair that two-year-olds from poor families need to start school or else they will fall further behind their better-off peers, is well-intentioned. But the elephant in the classroom, which she mentions in passing, is “weak parenting” – people who are unable or unwilling to read to their young children, play outdoor games, spend time talking to them, supervising art projects, teach them to count to 20, and arrange socialising with other kids. This is not just a matter of money: there are plenty of great parents who struggle to pay bills, and neglectful parents with plasma tellies and nice cars in the drive.
A group of prominent British academics said recently that formal schooling should be delayed until age seven because starting at four or five, as happens throughout the UK, was causing “profound damage”. The office of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, responded with even less charm than is customary, accusing the group of making “excuses for not teaching poor children how to add up”.
At the risk of getting splinters from sitting on the fence, there is a middle ground, seen in countries such as (don’t groan) Finland: better nursery education, allowing more learning through play, followed by a later start to formal classes, at seven.
Worryingly, in England, primary schooling may be about to become more formal: the Government is consulting on whether to measure children’s performance through league tables from age four, to track their development. That Whitehall classic: can progress really be progress if it cannot be measured?