Sunday, 1 November 2009

Why aren't the public convinced about a later start to formal education?

The government’s response to Professor Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review was a mistake: you cannot reject three years of serious research in a three-minute soundbite without sounding ill-mannered and foolish. Most of us probably expected little better, knowing politicians from the main parties would rather score an easy point than think seriously about childhood and education.

But I was troubled by the way that the media and the wider public seemed to have such difficulty with the proposal to delay the start of formal schooling until children are six years old. Beyond general sentiment about childhood being too short, and there being too much pressure on young children, there seemed to be little public support for this aspect of the Review. You could blame this on politicians and media commentators, but I wonder if we can be so sure that parents and other interested adults are so ignorant that they should be kept out of educational policy-making?

The final report is thoughtful, and well worth reading; but it has surprisingly little to say about how children learn through play and informal education. I found the chapter on the early years a rather straight-laced commentary on the last decade, lacking both the necessary inspiration and detailed arguments to support the extension of the early years phase by a year.

Likewise, recent postings to forums on Nursery World and the Times Educational Supplement show a real struggle to understand play-based early education. During the summer, a fed-up teacher postedI used to be a good teacher, now I just watch children play all day” and with nearly a hundred and fifty follow-ups, she was clearly not alone with her concerns. Similarly, a recent post to Nursery World’s forum worried that freeflow play meant letting children “run riot throughout the nursery”, in another long-running discussion.

I disagree fundamentally with these views, but I sympathise with those who post them. Practitioners have suddenly been told to adopt freeflow play because it is “what Ofsted expect”, without being given enough support or time by advisory teachers and others. When so many staff in nurseries and schools are unsure about the value of play-based early education, it is hardly a surprise that the wider public does not support a later start to formal schooling. The Cambridge Review is not the last word, but the opening of an important national discussion about why England's over-formal approach to early years education is wrong.