When should children start school?

Whilst on a business trip last year I took the opportunity to stay with some friends of ours who live in London. Their child was 4yrs old at the time and I was quite shocked at breakfast-time to see him all dressed up in full school uniform being taken for a day of “proper” education. It was such a contrast to where Zosia was at the same age, still at playschool, no uniform, quite informal.

school uniform

Seeing things like this gets you wondering who’s got it right? Is Zosia missing out on a few years of well structured education that will prove to be an essential difference between her and her British counterparts, or is my friend’s child missing out on a few important years of just ‘being a kid’ without the formality of uniforms and geometry?

I can’t say we’ve been exercising any scientific process to determine how Zosia’s education is progressing in these early years but we do keep an eye on it. There have been the regular meetings at school with the teachers, which have given a good foundation of understanding that she’s doing well. More important has been to see her attitude at home evolving, her interest in reading, writing, maths, knowledge generally growing as time goes by and we try to help her to explore those things as and when she appears to be ready to do so. It does seem that the schooling she is getting here is matching her own development quite well. Zosia is therefore getting an education that is almost in tune, perhaps slightly behind, her own natural development, whereas my friend’s child in London appears to be getting a very much state (or parent) led education. (not unexpected for the world’s biggest nanny state!) What I don’t know is how the child is responding to that, nor what the longer term benefits or drawbacks of that will be. I’m sure he’s doing well, but is it natural and does this going against nature give any real benefits in the long run?

I then noticed this UK article in mid October, which really struck a chord with me:

Formal schooling should be delayed until children reach 6, according to the biggest review of primary education for more than 40 years. The Cambridge Primary Review, published today, says that five-year-olds should continue with the play-based curriculum used in nursery schools. Trying to teach literacy and numeracy at such an early age is “counterproductive” and can put children off school, according to the committee that produced the report. Successive governments’ insistence on the earliest possible start to formal schooling went against the grain of international evidence, he said. Children who started school at the age of 6 or 7 often overtook English pupils in tests of reading before the start of secondary education.

The UK government, from what I can tell, has been promoting a policy of pushing kids into formal education two years earlier than in Poland. In Poland the general rule was playschool ages 3-5, age 6 was ‘zerówka’ (zero class or what the Brits call ‘Primary reception class’) and then formal education starts at age 7. This year there has been a slight change with a suggestion that zerówka should be held in formal schools rather than playschools, as Zosia is doing, and I’d agree with that by way of ‘acclimatisation’. The UK however, is promoting the equivalent of zerówka in formal schools for 4yr old kids, which in my opinion is ridiculous.

Dame Gillian Pugh, who chaired the review’s advisory committee, said: “If you introduce a child to too formal a curriculum before they are ready, you are not taking into account where children are in terms of their learning and their capacity to develop.”

A separate review, by Sir Jim Rose, that was commissioned and accepted by the Government, called for four-year-olds to go straight into primary reception classes. But Sir Jim recommended that parents be able to defer their child’s entry to school by up to a year if they felt they were not ready.

There’s no way Zosia was ready to begin her formal schooling at age four and we need to remember that although zerówka is only a preparatory stage it is still a big change from playschool. Far more emphasis on preparing the children for the rigours of formal education (timing, discipline, structure) and therefore far less on socialising with her friends and just having fun. I fail to see how anyone can get a 4yr old kid to grasp the importance of most of the things they wish to educate them about, let alone get them to concentrate long enough for it sink in. Even if they were concentrating, are they really able understand what they are being taught? For sure at that age I would say they don’t really want to be educated nor do they care about how important any adult might think the subject is.

I therefore think the Polish system is just about right for the majority of kids. Let them be kids and socialise until age five. Let them transition age six, preferably in a formal school environment because the transition will not be complete without that – a sort of “school-light” – and then let battle commence at age seven. From our own experience anything more rapid than that would be unnatural, bring no benefits and possibly a few drawbacks in terms of social skills and general “happiness factor”.

Of course, your kid may well be a child genius who needs special treatment and I’m sure there are many of those around, at least in the parent’s eyes!?


19 thoughts on “When should children start school?

  1. The new English model is not there for the benefit of the kids. It is there for the benefit of the state which aims to track children from cradle to grave. These children are after all the property of the state and not of their parents.

  2. Hi Scatts:
    Interesting post. As a parent of a six-year old (almost 7), I feel like I can make some relevant obvservations/comments.
    You may remember that I’m from Canada (Ontario to be specific). In Ontario, children MAY enter the public school system at the tender age of 4, when they enter junior kindergarten (half day). It used to be 5 , but the government extended public schooling to include JK a few years ago for a few good reasons. Firstly, enrolment in JK/SK (which is free) is optional and at the discretion of parents. Mandatory enrolment in school begins at age 6 in Grade 1.
    The main reason for introducing publicly funded JK was because it was determined that many “at risk” kids (socially and economically challenged) get left behind in primary school and NEVER catch up. The government wanted to give these kids the best start it could so they wouldn’t fall behind in Grades 1 and 2 by introducing numeracy and literacy concepts sooner rather than later. Middle class and well-to-do parents spend an enormous amount of time and money on their kids’ pre-school education (private nursery, Waldorf, Montessori schools etc). Most, if not all, of these children would be able to read pretty well upon entering Grade 1. Compare this cohort to children of single parents, immigrants or working poor who can’t afford similar stimulating daycare facilities. Many of these kids would spend all day with a “babysitter”, stuck in front of the television learning nothing, not socializing with other children nor even learning English. A huge disparity in abilities was obviously evident once both cohorts reached Grade 1 at the ripe old age of 6. The progress of these children was tracked through elementary school and it was found that the majority never caught up to their peer group. The government felt compelled to intervene (not all provinces could afford to do this however)and level the playing field. Perhaps it is important to note that Canada, particularly Ontario, is a land/province of immigrants. A rather astonishing fact: over 50% of Toronto’s population of 2.5 million was born outside of Canada. That creates special challenges and opportunities that need to be faced (I’m sure the UK has a similar set of challenges; Poland not so much. :))

    Children in public schools in Canada do not wear uniforms. JK and SK curriculums (currently half day, but will be extended to full day in 2011) are designed to be fun, stimulating, and obviously educational. Going to JK and SK is not overly structured; there is lots of time for music, art,and play. Most importantly, it exposes less advantaged children to a great stimulating environment where they can learn (and be on an equal footing to their peers).

    In Ontario, a parent can choose to have their children educated in either English or French. The French immersion stream in Toronto begins in SK (age 5). The rationale is obviously the earlier a child is exposed to a second language the easier the assimilation will be. My younger son (who will turn 7 in December) is in Grade 2 and can read and write in both French and English. He is in his third year of French immersion. This was not a hardship for him by any means. Children are ripe for learning and love to learn. I find his progress nothing short of miraculous. This is not the result of me being a “pushy” parent who wants their child to be some kind of “uberkid”. This is the result of a state-run, publicly funded school system. The notion that the state (or I) have in some way traumatized him or stolen his childhood from him is frankly ridiculous. He is a happy-go-lucky almost 7 year old kid that is on his way to becoming completely bilingual.

    Personally, I have a problem with anyone telling me when a child should or shouldn’t learn to do something. Kids learn when they are ready, and most are ready to learn a lot sooner than we think.

  3. Early socialising of children of immigrants or children of families on the fringes of society (economic or social) and thus the chance of giving ‘neglected’ children a better chance is something to be applauded. I wonder how it will apply to children whose parents want to send them to faith schools?

  4. Faith schools? Not sure I understand.
    Ontario has two systems of publicly funded education:
    the “public” agnostic model and the Catholic school boards. This is a holdover from Confederation where residents of Ontario were promised the option/ability to send their children to Catholic schools funded by the government. This system of funding a Catholic based school system is obviously grossly unfair to people of other faiths, but unfortunately it is embedded in law and successive governments have not had the temerity to change the law (backlash from voters). The Catholic model is pretty much identical to the public model (except for faith based instruction) and also enjoys JK/SK, french immersion etc.
    Parents who want their children to receive a faith-based education (other than Catholic) must send them to private schools and pay for the tuition entirely themselves. Unfair, but that is the law presently. Given the size of the public deficits (post-crisis) I seriously doubt there is the means to extend funding to any other groups. Likely, the Catholic based model will eventually be transitioned out.

  5. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Poland: Thoughts on Education System

  6. Pingback: Fly to Poland » Blog archive » Poland: Thoughts on Education System

  7. On the faith schools I was really wondering how it would work in the UK. At the moment, as I understand it, public funding to public schools (private schools enjoying charitable status) is permitted if those schools are not ‘discriminatory’ and also take in secular kids or from other faiths (I could be wrong). There has been the matter of people lying as to their faith to get their kids into faith schools but my curiosity was more to do with secular people objecting to their children being formally taught a faith from an earlier age than at present. Perhaps that is unlikely.
    Interesting to hear how it works in Canada.
    This site has some relevant info

  8. I don’t know when should children start school, but I remember old stupid joke.
    What are doing girls in 9 month? Co robią dziewczyny w 9 miesiącu?
    They are going to… school! :D Idą do… szkoły!

  9. Hey Scatts,
    Here in Norfolk, My lovely Oscar is forced to go to school at 4. Luckily he was born at beginning of september so is old in his year. If i could have home schooled him i would. It is a constant battle and really doesn’t like it. He was much better off at preschool. He struggles to pay attention, and is pretty much the bottom of the class – which apparently i should care more about! I don’t do reading at home – such is their homework… we read at bedtime or if he wants to. He is a very bright and musical little boy but in no way ready for school. I am jealous of our friends in Krakow! A subject close to my heart!

  10. Material, you simply reinforce my belief that I will never, as long as I live, laugh at a Polish joke!

    Lizzie, thanks for coming by and for adding your very relevant experience.

  11. I started school at four, as did my brother and sister, and we are all grew up into relatively normal human beings.
    Judging by what I remember of our school holidays at the time, I imagine we would have quickly become bored and irritable if we’d had to stay home until the age of six or seven.

    Re Lizzie’s son being old in his year – in the UK, as far as I know, only children with birthdays from September to December (i.e. the ones who will turn five before Christmas) start school in the autumn term: the rest of the year joins in January. I assume this is still current practice. This means that kids who are young for their year aren’t forced into a school environment too early.

  12. Hi Scatts…
    I think that they are trying to compete with the Asian world, when children are usually a subject of a constant movement forward, when an individual is not much of a matter, a group goal is.

    Asia has awaken. China has been sleeping for a long time and now is more than awake. Not even to mention India or South Korea for one instance.

    I strongly support the Polish idea of matching education with natural development of kids. In my case I joined playschool in the age of 5 and then regular school in the age of 7.

    But I am afraid that this collectivist Asian attitude is slowly taking over the power of new development ideas either by competition either by superpower.

    We’ll see…

  13. Scatts,

    9 month in the calendar is September. Usually in polish education system children start school the 1st of September!

  14. Material Girl – it’s a translation issue I think: you’d have to say ‘What do girls do in the ninth month?’ before there would be a pregnancy connotation. We tend not to call the months of the year by their numbers so it wouldn’t be so obvious that ‘the ninth month’ in this case means the ninth month after the start of the year, i.e. September.

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