Bright children should start school at six, says academic
By Graeme Paton, Education Editor telegraph
6:00AM BST 16 May 2012
Formal schooling should be delayed by at least 12 months because an over-emphasis on the three-Rs at an early age can cause significant long-term damage to bright children, according to a leading academic.
Dr Richard House said that formal schooling should be delayed until six to allow children to develop naturally. Photo:
Pupils should not be subjected to full classroom tuition until the age of six to off-set the effects of premature “adultification”, it was claimed.
Dr Richard House, a senior lecturer at Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, said gifted pupils from relatively affluent backgrounds suffered the most from being pushed “too far, too fast”.
He quoted a major US study – carried out over eight decades – that showed children’s “run-away intellect” actually benefited from being slowed down in the early years, allowing them to develop naturally.
Many bright children can grow up in an “intellectually unbalanced way”, suffering lifelong negative health effects and even premature death, after being pushed into formal schooling too quickly, he said.
Most British schoolchildren already start classes earlier than their peers in many other European nations. Children are normally expected to be in lessons by five, although most are enrolled in reception classes aged four.
Dr House, who was due to present his findings at a major conference in central London on Wednesday, called on the Government to launch an independent inquiry into England’s school starting age.
He said: “The conventional wisdom is that naturally intelligent children should have their intellect fed and stimulated at a young age, so they are not held back.
“Yet these new empirical findings strongly suggest that exactly the opposite may well be the case, and that young children’s run-away intellect actually needs to be slowed down in the early years if they are not to risk growing up in an intellectually unbalanced way, with possible life-long negative health effects.”
At the moment, most English children start school in nursery or reception classes at the age of three or four and are taught using the Early Years Foundation Stage – a compulsory “nappy curriculum”. They then move into formal lessons at the age of five.
The Government has already unveiled a radical overhaul of the EYFS, including a significant cut in the number of targets all children are supposed to hit.
But critics claim the revised pre-school curriculum still places an over-emphasis on desk-based tuition, with children forced to spend too much time practicing reading, writing, spelling and basic numeracy.
Earlier this year, a coalition of 50 leading academics, authors and childcare organisations launched a campaign group – Early Childhood Action – to push for an alternative curriculum focused almost entirely on a play-based approach.
Dr House said the new EYFS should be used up to six, with parents given the option to keep children out of school until this age. Ministers should consider the move as part of a wholesale review of the school starting age, he said.
Speaking before the Westminster Education Forum on Wednesday, he claimed the case for change was supported by a longitudinal study of gifted children who started in school in the US in the 1920s.
Prof Howard Friedman, a psychologist at the University of California, analysed their progress over 80 years and found that “early school entry was associated with less educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment and, most importantly, increased mortality risk”.
Prof Friedman told the Telegraph that formal education usually began at six but early starters entered education at four or five.
He added: “Most children under age six need lots of time to play, and to develop social skills, and to learn to control their impulses. An over-emphasis on formal classroom instruction – that is, studies instead of buddies, or staying in instead of playing out – can have serious effects that might not be apparent until years later.”
The conclusions follow a study from the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2002 that starting late “appears to have no adverse effect on children’s progress”.
Dr House said the Government must “help slow down the premature ‘adultification’ of children”.
“There are of course some children from very deprived backgrounds who on balance would, and certainly do, gain a net benefit from such early interventions,” he said.
“But the evidence is now quite overwhelming that such an early introduction to institutional learning is not only quite unnecessary for the vast majority of children, but can actually cause major developmental harm, and at worst a shortened life-span.”