Friday, 13 September 2013

DON’T give me a child until he is SEVEN


It is the start of the school year, so The Daily Telegraph, London, has done a cheery article about a group of “senior figures” calling for schooling to start later than the current 5 years of age. Presumably, the editors felt that a story knocking early education would enrage and discourage their readership, who had probably paid over the odds to get their offspring into education as early as possible. Indeed, most of their 5 year old darlings are probably battle-hardened mini executives, who have done toddler group, kindergarten, pre-school, violin, ballet, and can already text on their iPhones.

One of these senior figures is a Cambridge educationalist, Dr David Whitebread, who has actually taught in primary schools for 12 years, and has published a great deal on childhood play and cognition. I suspected he was providing the evidence base for the group’s proposals. I have looked at the most relevant of his papers below.

My initial thought on reading the story was that the actual age of starting schooling was not a tremendously important matter, and sometime between 5 and 7 was probably fine. Finland does well with a late start to schooling. Some countries use lots of additional tutoring at various ages, which muddies the picture. Furthermore, children mature at different rates, and have markedly different learning speeds. They have different interests and personalities as well. I also understand that for some hard pressed parents early schooling gives a very welcome child minding service, of better quality than they can afford themselves. For those children an early start at publicly funded schools probably assists them, because the alternative facilities are often poor. Other children are eager to learn their letters and their numbers at 4 or 5. People vary.

Considered calmly, this seems part of a larger question: is it worth sending children to school at any age? There is a significant home-schooling movement (that should be home-educating, but anyway) and those children would be an interesting comparison group. Another instructive group are those with awkward birthdates, which place them just out of their age cohort by one year: a lagged comparison. Finally, though slightly more weakly, one can compare school starting ages across different countries. This is slightly weaker because there is always some racial, historical, cultural or other difference which may invalidate the comparisons. Nonetheless, a good comparison of home-schooling, delayed cohorts and cross national comparisons should provide some useful data. Since the group is proposing a major policy change, one would expect their supportive evidence to be based on very large sample sizes, preferably at a national level. So, intrigued by their bold suggestion, I tried to find out more.

How strong is their evidence for this proposal?

Dr David Whitebread confirms that he is preparing a chapter on this issue, and this may well cover a lot of relevant evidence, but in the mean time his most relevant publication  is “School Readiness; a critical review of perspectives and evidence.” David Whitebread & Sue Bingham, University of Cambridge, which was prepared for the Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators OCCASIONAL PAPER NO: 2

The paper makes a number of statements about child development and learning, mostly based on Vigotsky’s theory of social constructionism, in which the ‘curriculum’ centres upon the interests, experience and choices of young children, which enables an holistic pedagogical approach. To my reading there are only two reference which speak directly to the age of starting schooling.

Suggate, S. (2007) Research into early reading instruction and luke effects in
the development of reading. Journal for Waldorf/R. Steiner Education, 11
(2), p.17

This paper suggests that the age of beginning to learn to read no longer has a demonstrable effect at age 14. Although the sample sizes are relatively small, and it refers to the benefits of one approach, the Waldorf/Steiner educational method in the main, this seems plausible. The representativeness of parents who chose this approach is questionable, but the result is not surprising.

Schweinhart, L. J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W. S., Belfield, C. R., &
Nores, M. (2005) Lifetime effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool study
through age 40. Monographs of the HighScope Educational Research
Foundation, 14. Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press

The Perry Preschool study reported spectacular results in the 1970s, and made me believe that the American black/white achievement gap had been sorted out by intense early childhood interventions. The sample was 123 poor African Americans. It is only fair to say that this study is something of a battleground, with all the usual debates about what the results really prove. I will take the generous line that it proves that very early intervention can have positive effects.

The Whitebread paper does not mention the Abecedarian study, which is usually considered to have been a better controlled study. This showed a massive early effect of intense early childhood intervention (dating from when the mother became pregnant till the child was 5) and no additional benefits from extending the compensatory education till age 8.  The results faded quickly, but a very useful 4 IQ points on average have remained, and life outcomes are a bit better in the experimental group.

Both these studies are about the benefits of getting Black children into schooling long before they are 5, with no benefits after 5. These intervention studies certainly don’t suggest any advantages to waiting till 6 or 7.

Frankly, if this paper is to be the intellectual underpinning of a very significant proposed change in educational practice, it looks a bit thin at the moment. It might be absolutely right to delay school till 7, but this paper does not succeed in making that case, and if the upcoming chapter is going to provide the proof, then it would have been better to wait for it to be published.


  1. The age of starting schooling is probably a minor issue compared to the benefits you might hope to realise by streaming. That is to say, it might be worth developing tests that reveal when an individual child would benefit by starting school.

    Anyway, surely the big potential benefits are at the other end of schooling, when the offer to let children leave school earlier if they can pass a suitable attainment test might add to their accomplishment and happiness while saving the taxpayer a mountain of money.

  2. Agreed. School should be a cafeteria, not a set meal. Jensen argued this 20 years ago. Let them in when they can be shown to be ready, and let them out when they are competent enough to try their hand at getting a job (with a "rain ticket" if they want to come back for more learning, ability permitting). There, that's an education policy, and it didn't take long, nor cost a penny in public funds.

  3. My mother home-schooled both myself for some time and my large collection of siblings for far longer. Oddly enough it started because the school my younger sister attended refused to be responsible for administration of a simple inhaler for her asthma, so my mother pulled her out in frustration and started doing the teaching herself. The asthma went away soon enough, but the home-schooling stuck. My sister's quite severe dyslexia probably also contributed to this decision. I (at the time aged 7), didn't think it fair that my little sister should be having so much fun, so I dropped out of school also and joined the party. By the time I returned to full-time education, about 18 months later, the gap between myself and my peer group had grown so wide that I had to be moved up a year. I left full-time education for good at age 12 and from then on mixed home schooling with private tuition and courses at a local crammer (Collingham College). Meanwhile the sibling count had grown from 1 to 5, and my mother successively home educated all of them, with assistance from tutors for some subjects. The youngest two eventually went to (mostly) full-time school at age 11.

    Overall I would say the outcomes have been really quite good thus far, but of course both my parents are highly intelligent and conscientious people, so from a genetic perspective this is no more than what you would expect. I do think that home-schooling allowed for the dyslexia to be better catered for, though (in the end 4 out of 6 of us wound up dyslexic, with only myself (No.1) and sibling No.4 having no problems with speech or writing). Many schools deal with learning difficulties very badly. It also allowed for much more efficiency - we'd work in a structured manner from 9am to lunch, but the afternoon was often given over to music practice, sports, ballet, etc. The other benefit was that it was very easy for individual differences in our talents and aptitude for certain subjects to be catered for.

    Alan Thomas of the IoE has done quite a bit of the research into home-schooling outcomes, I think. From my ancedotal perspective, though, I would expect some difficulties in using home-schooled children as a comparison group - I'd guess there would be a strong upper-middle class bias and probably a much higher percentage of children with special needs relative to the general population.

  4. Thanks for your very informative comment, and for the mention of Alan Thomas. As you surmise, the problem about assessing home education is that it is taken up by a particular group of parents. I have not looked at the literature in any detail, but the obvious contrast would seem to between those who have to take it up because of rural isolation and those who choose to do it for particular advantages.
    Some home educated children whom I know personally, strongly feel that they missed out on social contacts. A psychologist friend who home educated his children said that my concern about social contacts was a very standard concern, and that his children had plenty of social contacts.
    I can't promise to look into this at this stage, but the cost implications (said to be $600 per child per year at home vs $9000 per child at school) are intriguing. It would be necessary to factor in loss of wages, so I cannot be sure of these claimed figures.
    It is part of a larger global picture. The internet has changed the dynamics and economics of education. Universities are now major providers of undergraduate course material for everybody. We may end up with a cafeteria of educational inputs: mixtures of some communal schooling, tutoring, internet learning and specialist hands on training

  5. We didn't had any problems with social contact, but then again we were living in central London, where it's trivially easy to form friendships through social activities outside of school. If you're stuck in the back of beyond it might well be rather different.

    And yes, you certainly do save vast amounts of money on school fees if you were going to pay those (and if you weren't, you save vast amounts of time trying to game the state school admissions procedures).

    It will be interesting to see how long we stick with the factory farm model of education, but societal inertia is a powerful voice, so it could take a while for serious change to arrive.