British children have always started school at five, earlier than other European countries, where the starting age is six or seven. But that first "reception" year used to be a settling-in time, when children learnt – as their brains are naturally primed to learn – through play (sand, water, making things, dressing up, role play), stories, music and art.
As our national culture grew ever more competitive, it was easy to convince parents that an early start is a good thing. In a dog-eat-dog world, no one wants their beloved child to be "left behind" or "held back". So over the last 15 years, we have seen children required to start on formal approaches to reading and writing when they are five, four and sometimes even three years old. Many therefore fall at the first fence in literacy learning and, sadly, catch-up programmes do not seem to work.
I believe this is a key reason behind our country's inability to reduce the "long tail of underachievement", especially in areas of deprivation, despite the huge investment of recent years.
Increasing numbers of children now arrive at nursery or primary school with poorly developed speech, attention and social skills. Many have had few life experiences beyond watching TV. This means that there's much groundwork to be done before they're able to read and enjoy books, wield pencils and understand what writing is about.
Our early start also often causes a problem for boys, who tend to be developmentally behind girls. They need opportunities to develop their spoken language and plenty of active play to develop the physical control and co-ordination they'll need for writing. If pushed to achieve skills that are developmentally beyond them, they can be put off for life.
In Finland, which does best in international studies of literacy, children follow a personally tailored, play-based "kindergarten curriculum" until they are seven. Children are encouraged to read and write and supported in their interests and efforts, but as individuals (as they would be in a caring family home) not in a "schoolified" way.
We should follow the Finns' example and focus on the importance of outdoor play, music, song, stories, art and drama in early learning and the need to respond to young children's developmental needs, rather than enforcing a top-down educational model at an early age. Raising the school starting age to six (or even seven) and providing a "kindergarten stage" from the age of three would give all children a better chance of achieving a good standard in literacy.
It would also send a very strong message to parents and the general public about what really matters in early childcare and education, and the social, emotional and physical basis of "a good childhood".
Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist, former headteacher and author of "Toxic Childhood"Reuse content