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.