Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 29 Oct 2009

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

Hillary'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 all 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—broadly speaking -- what is supposed to happen in today’s schools. 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 in order to help them meet national targets. As a result perfection -- as always in education -- remains out of reach.