Children in England start school much sooner than children in other Western European countries. Compulsory education starts at 5 in England, and many children begin education at 4, but in other European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, school starts at 7.
Children in England are making their way through the curriculum while their European counterparts are making their way through the sandpit at Kindergarten or enjoying time at home. But which is the better system?
This question has been looked at by the Primary Review in Cambridge, a review into how primary education is delivered. They challenge the idea that starting soon produces the best long-term results. The report says that assuming an early start means better long term development is something not supported by research, so the jury is still out.
So just why do English children start school at 5, while the rest of Europe starts later? Only the rest of the UK, Malta, and the Netherlands have education systems that start at 5. The Republic of Ireland even starts at 4.
The Primary Review says that this early start was brought in back in 1870 and that it had very little to do with education. Children starting school so early was done to protect Victorian children from their feckless parents. It was to socially condition them and also to appease employers who were worried starting school later would get rid of their young workforce. Starting school early meant leaving school early, which meant working early.
We still feel the effects of this. The effect is that children spend less time with their families.
Children in Scandinavia stay in school for three more years than children in England, and the summer holidays enjoyed by English and Welsh children are the shortest in the European Union.
Right now schools are under pressure to become “extended schools” to make the school day even longer through optional activities before and after school hours. The whole affair is far from black and white though. What would be the impact that working parents face if their children aren’t in school? The reality is that many children in pre-school spend hours in childcare.
Teachers’ conferences from last year raised the very legitimate concern that children ended up spending so little time with their family that they became aggressive and de-socialised. They emulate their peers rather than the adult role models they should be. Role models that are no longer around.
But what would the effect on education standards be?
The most intriguing thing to come out of these statistics is the lack of a relationship between how long children spend in the classroom and how well they perform. Finland has some of the most educated students in the world and tops league tables. However it is also the bottom of the table for how many hours children spend in a classroom.
Pupils in Finland start school at the age of 7 and they have an 11-week long summer holiday. Shockingly they are still the best educated children in Europe. Poland is climbing up through the education league tables and is overtaking England in reading. It’s also a country where children don’t become pupils until they are 7 years old.
There is also an egalitarian argument to starting school early. Children who have poorer parents that may not be able to help their education as much could face being left behind if there was no compulsory education until 6 or 7.
Statistics from the government released this year show the sobering truth about how little time spent in school helps bridge the gap between rich and poor children.
When children start school at 5 children from more affluent families already have a clear lead on the other children. This “attainment gap” as it’s known gets wider and wider all the way through school rather than getting thinner. The richest children get further ahead of the poorer children as each year passes.
There are other concerns about children starting school before they are mentally and physically ready. The government has decided to give parents of children born in the summer the right to delay compulsory education by a year.
This decision comes after research that shows the youngest children in their year had a disadvantage that never goes away. While almost 61% of girls born in September received 5 good GCSES, only around 55% of girls born in August performed at the same level.
The Primary Review took a look at the evidence and were left with no choice but to say the evidence is inconclusive. There’s no clear link between the quantity of education and the quality of it.