Now is not a good time for under-fives living in England. Since the late 1990’s there has been an inexorable shift towards a single point of entry to Primary schools in England and now (despite there being no requirement for them to be in school until the term after their fifth birthday) the majority of children start school in the September of the year in which they will become five years old. This means that in any Primary school in England there will be children as young as four in Reception classes. Depending on the quality and appropriateness of the provision in the Reception class, this isn’t necessarily bad, but when you realise that this means there will be a significant number of children who are just five in Year 1 the alarm bells should start to ring.
Several years ago when two or three points of entry was the most common pattern, the issue of summer born children was a constant cause for concern. In 2000 a briefing report to the Education Select Committee called into question the efficacy of an early start to formal education and there were calls for the starting school age in England to be raised to six. Margaret Hodge said at the time that the issue was not the starting school age but the quality of the provision that children experienced in the early years of education. In theory, the Early Years Foundation Stage which covers the Reception Year was supposed to address this but the reality is somewhat different, particularly for all those summer born children. England already had the second lowest starting school age in Europe though unlike their peers in Wales where Early Years play based learning continues until the equivalent of Year 2, many five year olds in England experience a dramatic change in the approach to teaching and learning the moment the start in Year 1. This is compounded by the fact that the almost universal 1 point of entry system means that most children start school at five or, in the case of summer born children, as young as four.
This de facto lowering of school starting age has not gone unnoticed. Recently both the BBC and Nursery World reported that MP Annette Brooke has tabled an early day motion calling for greater flexibility over the starting school date. Elsewhere, the TES reports that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has called for age adjusted tests for summer born children. While addressing both of these issues may go some way towards addressing the problem, they both fail to address the main issue, which is that English children effectively start school in Reception at the age of four. While for some of them the learning environment is similar to that found in high quality nursery provision the reality is that for the majority formal learning prevails and play-based learning and enquiry is pushed to the margins. No amount of tinkering will address this and our politicians appear reluctant to learn from elsewhere in Europe, where despite a much later start to formal schooling (typically 6 and in some cases 7) with a focus on play and exploration, pupils tend to outperform English students post-16.
In England the prevailing view still appears to be that the sooner children start formal schooling the better. Recently Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss condemned unruly toddlers and praised the formality she had witnessed in French ecoles maternelles despite the French system ranking below England for the quality of provision. This week Nursery World reports that OFSTED Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw has called for assessment in the Early Years Foundation Stage to be more closely aligned with SATS. Those calling for formalised learning for the under-fives appear to be gaining the upper hand. When this is set in the context of reports that pre-school funding may be cut under the current spending review, things are not looking good for England’s under-fives.