Kids need time more than tests

UK is slipping down the academic achievement tables in maths, science and reading, compared with countries where kids have two more years’ play than ours

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The Independent Online

Why not start school at seven? Is the Government’s reluctance to listen to a plea from 130 respected educationalists just because we want kids out of the house, so we can get on with our own lives? Let’s shunt them off to school, police them from early morning to afternoon, so they can be taught stuff we can’t be arsed to, from table manners to potty training.

Increasingly, teachers report children arriving at primary school unable to speak in sentences, still in nappies, and with few social skills. A large number of parents have given gadgets and hours of television, but don’t bother with the one thing that benefits children most: their time – regular time – spent talking, reading and playing together.

In most of Europe, children enter formal schooling at six and in some Baltic countries at seven. The UK is slipping down the academic achievement tables in maths, science and reading, compared with countries such as Finland, Poland and Sweden, where kids have two more years’ play than ours. Michael Gove was too quick to dismiss the Save Childhood Movement, which wants schooling to start at seven, saying that it advocates lower standards. That is bonkers. It is not as if the current system of rigorous testing is making kids more employable at the end of their education. Not when employers say a huge number are illiterate and lack social skills.

Small children have very different rates of learning, but the priority must be to give them social, verbal and co-ordination skills that will enable them to confidently fit in and focus when they start formal learning. They need to be able to complete tasks, to help others, to be in a team, to express themselves coherently. Structured play is an important learning tool that can be calibrated to meet every child’s differing needs.

Now, three- and four-year-olds in nursery and reception classes are taught using the Early Years Foundation guidelines, assessed for personal development, numeracy and communication, before starting formal classes at five.

Another respected educationalist says that teaching small children how to speak and communicate properly is far better than learning to write. Alan Smithers advocates “systematic” learning when children spend structured time talking with teachers and each other, before formally starting to read and write. Testing does not help all children and may harm them, turning them into little failures before they’ve even started big school. 

Total immersion

Six years ago, I experienced an unforgettable night at the theatre, Punchdrunk’s thrilling Masque of the Red Death, at Battersea Arts Centre in south London. It was a clever mash-up of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and the climax, which took place in a former ballroom, was sublime. Last week, I caught the company’s latest production, sprawled over four floors of a huge former Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington station. Anyone planning to attend The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Tale (to 30 December) gets plenty of instructions: you’ll be wearing a mask, so specs may be inadvisable; no handbags; sensible shoes.

I waited almost half an hour in a small room before being allowed to enter an industrial lift for my “immersive experience”. The masks are hot and don’t add much, and there are many more spectators than at previous shows. The sheer scale meant I felt as if I was missing out on a dramatic gem as I wandered through the huge spaces.  The design and mise-en-scène is superb – this is a wonderful re-creation of seedy 1960s Hollywood – but I never really engaged with the action.

I loved walking on sand, sitting in a tiny cinema, wandering through scruffy makeup areas, cubicles, and tawdry dressing rooms. The bar area was packed: masks could be removed.

Punchdrunk is to be treasured, but I hope its next production is smaller in scale and has a better-focused narrative.

Plain brilliant

My divorce lawyer once gave me very good advice: wear a plain coat to court, no jewellery, look humble. It worked a treat. If only someone had told Lucy Adams this. When the much-mocked BBC Director of HR arrived to give evidence to a parliamentary committee last week, she sported an expensive lilac printed coat which screamed, “High salary [£332,000p.a.], designer choice”. Inside, she displayed too much jewellery  – three rings, silver necklace, earrings. No wonder cheers rang out across the BBC newsroom when she was accused of lying, and castigated for her bizarre interpretation of giving a matter her “immediate” attention – i.e. weeks later. If Adams had any guts, she would bail out now.

Leader Hodge?

As Ed Miliband fails to connect with voters, might there be another contender for leader of the Labour party? Margaret Hodge wins praise from all sides for her incisive chairing of parliament’s powerful public accounts committee. The other day, she announced the Government “had yet to make a convincing case” for the funding of high-speed rail link HS2. Her interrogation of the BBC bosses’ line-up of shame last week was brutally forensic, and she is an excellent communicator.

She has her detractors: she was accused (as leader of Islington Council, 1982-92) of not taking seriously allegations of abuse of children in care. Recently, critics alleged that her family’s business pays minimum tax in the UK; this is not ideal while her committee castigates the tax arrangements of Vodaphone and Starbucks.

Three metrosexual males lead our main parties. Labour needs someone with cojones: Hodge fits the bill.

High society

To qualify as “supertall”, buildings must be over 330 metres (985 feet), often achieved with useless prongs and embellishments. In London, only The Shard is supertall, its top 20 per cent only decorative. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat calls these buildings “vain”: half the skyscrapers in the UAE, such as Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, have 19 per cent of unusable space. And this in a country with plenty of land and few people. London’s South Bank is soon to have several very tall buildings, including a  44-storey tower at Elephant and Castle. A 49-storey building will house flats and a hotel south of Blackfriars bridge; at Nine Elms, the 50-storey St George Wharf Tower nears completion, and the Shell Centre has just announced plans for a high-level expansion. None adds distinction to London’s skyline, and the spaces around them at ground level will be windy and unwelcoming. The trend for macho architecture is depressing, and sums up the current trend for new money and vulgar bling.