Memorandum from Sula Wolff FRCP, FRCPsych,
DCH (EY 14)
FORMAL SCHOOLING FOR CHILDREN IN THE UK SHOULD
START AT SIX YEARS
1. The National Commission on Education (1993),
many of whose recommendations have been enacted by successive
governments, reported that the percentage of British school leavers
who go on to higher education and obtain a degree or higher level
diploma compares well with that in other countries. But a large
majority of children fail to benefit from their education despite
adequate abilities. The percentages of children who at 16 and
18 achieve comparable school qualifications were at that time
much lower in the UK than in Germany, France and Japan.
2. An academic self-image is formed between
5 and 8 years, and is both an outcome and a mediator of schooling.
A positive academic self-concept enhances learning, and the correlation
between perceived competence and school achievement increases
steadily from 9-12 years (Entwisle et al, 1987). Sylva and Wiltshire
(1993) have convincingly argued that the most important impact
of early education is on children's aspirations, motivations and
commitment to school, rather than on the effects of what they
are specifically taught. They argue further that a "mastery"
orientation to learning, based on confidence that they are able
to succeed, leads children to learn for the sake of learning rather
than for adult approval, and enables children to persist in the
face of difficulty. In contrast, children with a "helpless"
orientation to learning (which is not, or not necessarily, related
to IQ), saw difficulties not as challenges but as indicative of
low ability, viewed educational tasks as tests, were convinced
they would fail and tended to give up in the face of difficulty.
3. The enduring positive outcomes of good
pre-school education, such as the High Scope Perry pre-school
programme, have been well and repeatedly documented. Sylva (1994)
makes the point that its main effect was to enable children to
develop a commitment to schooling, which begins as a response
to school success and is both motivating and promoting of cognitive
progress. Participation in this pre-school programme was cost
effective and strongly related to later school achievements and
also to reduced rates of truancy, school drop out, delinquency,
dependency on welfare and even, in girls, teenage pregnancy (Barnett
and Escobar, 1990). Such pre-school programmes have the greatest
effect on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For such programmes
to be effective, their curriculum needs to be based on play and
active learning rather than on formal instruction, but on play
that is guided and extended by adults rather than free play alone
(Sylva and Wiltshire, 1993). We need to be clear that these effective
pre-school programmes took place in the USA where the statutory
age of school entry is six years. Although not based on strictly
controlled comparisons, there is evidence that pre-school education
in nursery schools in the UK is more effective than education
in nursery classes within primary schools (Osborne and Milbank,
4. It is possible, but not yet proven, that
if high quality pre-school programmes could be guaranteed for
all socially disadvantaged children, it might not be necessary
to consider changing the age of entry to formal schooling. Yet
it is in my view quite unrealistic to rely on such an eventuality.
5. The development of language related skills,
including reading and spelling, in boys lags behind that of girls,
at least in the early years. Boys on average arrive at school
less mature than girls and are more likely to start their school
careers with a sense of failure.
6. I have recently argued that the start
of formal schooling should be delayed, as in most other countries,
until children are six years old (Wolff, 1999).
7. Britain is out of step with most European
countries in its statutory age of school entry. Six years is the
usual age of entry, except for the Scandinavian countries where
it is seven. The age of five for school entry was set in Britain
in the last century for reasons that no longer apply: to remove
children from the unhealthy conditions and exploitation within
their neighbourhoods and homes, and to enable them to complete
their education in time for an early entry into the labour market
8. Research into the effects of age of school
entry is of two kinds. Within the UK and the USA, school attainments
have been measured for children born in different seasons of the
year and who thus start school at the beginning, middle or end
of their statutory age of school entry (at the age of six in the
USA). The problems with these studies is that the age span of
school entry investigated is quite short; season of birth may
have unknown, independent effects; the sex ratios of the different
intakes have not always been controlled for (Tymms, 1998); and
that, if testing is done only one or two years after school entry,
the results are confounded by length of schooling.
9. Sharp et al (1994), however, in their
review of these studies (not all of which found early school entry
to be disadvantageous) and a report of their own findings, conclude
that overall children who start school close to their fourth birthday
do not do as well as children born at the same time of the year
who start school later. They stress that teachers may underestimate
the abilities of the youngest children in their class because
of these children's poorer co-ordination and attention span, and
that their expectations and style of teaching may not be appropriate
for the children's development level.
10. More compelling are international comparisons
of children's educational progress in relation to age of school
entry. The International Educational Achievement Study of reading
literacy and instruction in 32 school systems makes fascinating
reading (Elley, 1992). Sadly the countries surveyed did not include
the UK, because the National Foundation for Educational Research
did not approve of the tests used and was, one deducts, not able
to influence these (Brooks et al, 1996).
11. In this international study numerous
background variables were considered in relation to the children's
tested attainments. These variables included measures of general
health and welfare, adult literacy rates, gross per capita national
product, public expenditure on education, language of tuition
compared with language spoken, complexity of language, teacher
training, childrens' access to reading materials and a number
of others including the child's gender and the statutory age of
school entry in the country concerned. Testing was done at nine
and 14 years.
12. Of the 32 countries surveyed, only three
began formal schooling, as in the UK, at five (New Zealand, Ireland
and Trinidad and Tobago); one began at five and a half; eight
at seven; and 20 at six years of age. In most developed and developing
countries children start school at 6. Only in New Zealand, Ireland,
Trinidad and Tobago were children formally instructed in reading
13. The authors found that a late start
to formal instruction was no handicap. Those who started at seven
were often the best at nine, despite having had a shorter time
at school. Across all countries, other things being equal, starting
school at six was best of all.
14. In all countries girls outstripped boys
in overall levels of achievement, especially in narrative reading
at nine. When length of schooling before testing and all other
relevant factors were controlled for, the gender differences in
overall achievement were greatest in children who had started
school at five, both in tests administered at nine and even more
so in those given at 14. The authors write: "A plausible
interpretation of these trends is that a policy of an early start
in formal reading instruction is too early for many boys, and
implies persisting problems for many of them" (pp 107-108).
They also say "...in countries where formal instruction begins
at age five, the boys fell further behind the girls in both comprehension
and word recognition. An early start to formal instruction may
not be beneficial for many late maturing boys" (pp 226).
15. Among many other important findings
of this study was that reading was best promoted when the stress
was put on reading for enjoyment rather than on reading skills.
16. All child mental health professionals
are well aware of the often devastating effects on children of
school failure. Not only are they deprived of the opportunities
of a rewarding education and working life; school failure contributes
to the development of anti-social conduct and delinquency. Both
curtailed education and delinquency are commoner in boys than
girls, and both have far reaching consequences for the wider community.
(It was different even 20-30 years ago when boys with no educational
qualifications could still find manual jobs they were good at,
which gave them an entry into the adult world, raised their self-esteem
and often helped them to give up previous delinquent behaviour
and delinquent associates).
17. Mortimer and Whitty (1997) have recently
argued that in order to overcome the effects of disadvantage on
children, progress on two fronts is needed: school improvement
as well as tackling the structural inequalities in society. Yet
it is unrealistic to expect that high quality pre-school education
will, at least in the short term, be available for all children
from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nor is it realistic to rely on
any rapid decline in the numbers of children growing up amidst
poverty and other socially disadvantageous circumstances despite
active political measures to counteract social exclusion and child
18. And there is another important point
to be made, one that it is currently unfashionable to mention
because it is out of step with "politically correct"
ideas. Not all children are equally able. There are real differences
in intelligence between children, often of course compounded by
their sociocultural environment. Much emphasis is, rightly, placed
on raising teacher expectations of disadvantaged children. It
has been shown, for example, that even children of good abilities
and with adequate verbal skills, as demonstrated in the home environment,
often arrive at school lacking in social confidence and social
skills, so that their verbal and other abilities tend to be underestimated
by their teachers (Tizard and Hughes, 1984). And when teacher
expectations are too low, children's school progress is impeded.
Of course this needs to be corrected.
19. Yet, when teacher expectations are too
high and children are for reasons of intellectual immaturity unable
to fulfil these, they start their school lives with a sense of
failure, likely to affect the whole of their subsequent school
careers. The choice is between setting the start of formal learning
at an age level at which almost all children can cope or, as at
present, at a level at which a large minority of children are,
for reasons of intellectual immaturity, often compounded by co-existing
social disadvantage, unable to follow the school curriculum. Moreover,
the International Study of Reading Literacy (Elley, 1992) suggests
that children of above average abilities are not handicapped by
a later start of formal learning.
20. For all these reasons, and despite the
many logistic difficulties that will ensue, I urge the Committee
to consider very seriously raising the statutory age of school
entry to the age of six years.
Barnett, W S and Escobar, C M (1990) Economic
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J P Shonkoff (eds) Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention.
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graders: its response to social structure. Child Development,
Mortimer, P and Whitty, G. (1997) Can School
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Sharp, C, Hutchinson, D and Whetton, C (1994)
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Research, 40, 69-71.
Wolff, S (1999) Starting school: Do our children
start too young? Young Minds, Issue No. 42, 10-11.
Woodhead, M (1986) When should children go to
school? Primary Education Review, 25, 10-13.
Sula Wolff, FRCP, FRCPsych,
formerly Consultant Child Psychiatrist,
Royal Hospital for Sick Children, and
University Department of Psychiatry,