Not reading at 5? A scandal!

A lot of media noise last week about the British school starting age, prompted by an academics’ letter to Education Minister Michael Gove. I have versions of this discussion every summer, since my own child started reception two years ago, with an Italian teacher who thinks that teaching children to read before the age of six is damaging to them in the long term. A lot of people agree with her. The implicit onus on my son every year is now to prove her wrong.

I defend my country weakly with reference to how well it’s actually done, this so-called formal early British education. I attempt to eradicate gruesome images of four year olds tied to old-fashioned desks for hours on end with descriptions of our reception classroom, in which I spent a lot of time; a kind of free-range double-helix-shaped playzone accessible to children for virtually all of the school day. For twenty minutes morning and afternoon they sat on the floor watching the teacher do something usually involving a song and a projector. Then they did/sang whatever it was themselves.

However – if most children haven’t mastered phonic decoding by term 3 of Year 1, when some are still only 5 and a half, school inspectors will have something to say about it. At an age at which European children don’t even have to recognise their printed names above a coat-peg.

They’ve managed it, most of the children in our class, and a good school will try very hard not to trample on the self-esteem of those who don’t. But ambitious parents are often less sensitive. I’m embarrassed, now, by some of the pressure to which I subjected my just-four-year-old, in my deluded new-school-mum’s eagerness to see him match the best of the free-readers (almost uniformly the older ones) in reception.

It’s so much more important at four to enjoy books rather than to actually read them, and I’m relieved I saw sense fairly quickly. I gave him a break. I read them to him. I read him other things. I don’t think I did too much damage. But for a short time, in my deluded desire to be a Tiger Mom about this, I made books and reading scary.

The thing is, though, no teacher took me and the other parents of summer-borns aside to say look, your child is very very young, it’s not important, possibly even damaging, to make him read at this very early stage. For his age, my son was always doing absolutely fine by any standards. But he and others I’m sure ended up getting pressured inappropriately because I was ignorant and ambitious and school staff were pushed. It would never have happened in Sweden.

All of which skates over the really explosive aspect of this issue: social class. We skirt around this, assuming social hierarchy to be immutable; part of, even a treasured part, of our British way of life. We know we shouldn’t, but we actually quite like it this way.

We especially don’t like talking about social class to Europeans like the Swedes and the Finns, because we know they just won’t get it, though annoyingly it’s always their internationally acclaimed state education systems which are trotted out as ideals. However, if we don’t, we’ll never get to the heart of the matter.

So here goes (gulp): the implication from the Michael-Gove, earlier-the-better, you-spaced-out-hippies-are-just-bolstering-low-expectations-for-poor-children camp is, well, those Continentals can afford to start school later because they don’t have such a big, irresponsible underclass of feckless and ill-educated parents to state-educate. To be blunt, their children are more equal to start with. The Swedes are all upper-middle-class, no?

Starting full-time school at four is not about the apparent minority (at least around here) of state-educated children who come from fully-literate homes with lots of appropriate stimulation. It’s about snatching vulnerable kids away from bad-influence or neglectful homes as early as possible, for as long as possible. It’s about influencing – why not just say educating? – parents who don’t understand about good home practice at the first possible moment. If the price of pressurizing socially-deprived four-year-olds to read is that, by 11, they’d sooner eat gone off vegetables than contemplate opening any book voluntarily, then so what? The alternative would have left them unable to read at 11 at all.

And incidentally – a corollary of this, and something I am sure many Conservative politicians quietly believe – is that state-education should actually be the exclusive preserve of that penniless underclass. Anyone who could conceivably pay in part or in full for their children’s education has no excuse for not doing so. The sooner all those lefty-middle-class scroungers who sponge their children’s education off the state (with free school meals thrown in, I ask you!) get packed off to the private sector where they belong, the better.

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About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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5 Responses to Not reading at 5? A scandal!

  1. Jo says:

    Interesting post and on a subject I feel quite strongly about. The ‘level the playing field’ and ‘conquer the social divide’ argument has been trotted out before in relation to our early school starting age, but doesn’t stand up to any evidence.
    In any case, I think all the talk about the school starting age is a bit misleading. The issue is more about Early Years policy generally and what we’re providing for children under 7. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting children just stay home with mum until they’re 7, nor do I think this is what happens in those Scandinavian countries whose educational outcomes are so much better than ours. More play based learning and less forced numeracy and literacy targets is all that’s needed.

  2. marytuda says:

    I’m not advocating the early starting age myself, just rehearsing the arguments that the ministers responsible make, especially, I imagine, off the record. Of course there is a middle way between pressurising children of whatever background to read at 4, and not getting them reading fluently in time at all.
    Our school started taking all 4 yr olds from September, rather than just those born before March, a couple of years ago, to give the summer-born children, they claim, a better chance of catching up. As parent of a summer-born child who hated pre-school but loved reception straight away, I was grateful. But I agree that it’s about the nature of Early Years education as a whole rather than school vs nursery/home with mum. And of course it’s quite true that the Swedes and so on don’t neglect that either.

    • Jo says:

      I don’t really ‘get’ that not starting to force children to read at 4 in any way risks missing the opportunity to get them to read fluently at all. There’s plenty of time! All the evidence points to starting them at 7. If children are coming out of Primary school in the UK unable to read fluently, perhaps the government ought to look at this evidence, take the advice from the experts, and change tack, rather than simply applying more pressure at ever younger ages.

  3. marytuda says:

    The European study I saw quoted (I should find the link) suggested that while there was no difference in technical reading ability between 11 year olds taught to read at 4/5, and those taught at 7, those taught later were significantly more enthusiastic at 11 about reading for pleasure. Which certainly suggests that early pressure to read is likely to turn reading from a potentially enjoyable activity into something viewed as a chore for life.
    One of the things that slightly depresses me is misguided pressure from parents . . . Many are so keen to see their children to achieve, to impress their grandparents or whoever by reading “three years above his age!” that they are constantly pressurising for more and harder homework, harder reading books etc. right from the very start. When in my view any spare time and energy their child has after school is better spent playing imaginatively or reading easy non-school books for pleasure. Whatever individual teachers’ views I’m sure they end up just giving the parent what they want for a quiet life.

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