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
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.