The argument behind starting children at an earlier age is to ameliorate the impact of a deprived background. Incidentally, I get quite annoyed when I see it referred to as “poverty”, as it is in a few reports on this. Whilst actual financial poverty will inevitably take its toll on kids – inadequate diet, cramped environment etc – a lot of the problems they talk about are to do with poor parenting, not physical poverty. You can get some very good parenting in desperately hard-up families – and some diabolical parenting in better off ones.
While trying to help disadvantaged kids is obviously praiseworthy, I can’t help feeling that forcing all kids into education at that sort of age isn’t the right way to do it. If we take this to the extreme, we’d be having all kids in centralised care from the minute they’re born – would the Hatcheries of Brave New World be far away after that? Would not support for those with poor parenting skills be more appropriate? And if it is not just about parenting skills – should we not be ashamed, in our society, that people are living in sufficient poverty to impact on the development of their children? Surely the significant costs entailed in imposing an earlier start at school would be better spent addressing these specific problems?
I am not too sure how I feel about the campaign for a later start to formal schooling. Half of me is very sympathetic – kids do need time to be kids, and to learn by playing rather than being formally instructed. But then…. we’ve been starting school at age 5 in this country for a long time and I don’t think we’re all completely affected by our “developmental rights being ignored”. Also, whilst I appreciate that individual examples don’t constitute any sort of general argument, I do remember quite clearly at the start of primary school that I much preferred the actual proper “learning” in the morning to the unstructured “play” we had in the afternoon. I admit this was at least partly because at school I was expected to play with tea sets and dollies rather than my preferred lego and trains – but I also really used to like being taught things.
Perhaps we need a more flexible approach based less on chronological age? Though you need to be a bit careful – a primary school near where I grew up had really bought into the whole Piaget thing, and had this idea that kids who were ready would naturally wander over to the reading table, forsaking the sandpit and the cuddly toys. Needless to say, some of those kids if completely left to themselves would have happily continued with the sandpit and remained illiterate until they departed for secondary school aged 11… But without taking it to those extremes, we could do with a little more “give” in the system to accommodate those who are or aren’t ready for school.