The question of when a child should begin their formal education is one that continually rumbles around the education circles across the World. With different countries and education systems beginning their formal studies at different age milestones, each is constantly comparing and analyzing their own implemented age bracket to others and their academic success. With the starting age for schooling ranging across the World, even across the Great Britain, it is an intriguing question to ponder and figure out where we stand on the subject, with regards to our own school and, indeed, our own children.
Formal or Structured Child Education?
Before one can begin to delve deeper into the question posed, first we must clarify an important distinguishing word in the question. The term ‘formal’ in the educational sense is used to represent the year of schooling where the children are introduced to the good old fashioned ‘3 R’s’, it is where they begin their academic journey to learn to read, write and engage in formal maths lessons. In all countries this begins simultaneously, in the same year, the beginning of the serious business of learning. Along with this comes the pressure and the expectation to achieve these goals as soon as possible in order to access higher learning, deeper concepts and topics. Some countries, such as England, have introduced testing for these young learners to assess their progress and chart this against others and National expectations. With such pressure and expectation it is no wonder that some education systems are now beginning to try to get the children to begin this journey earlier, that earlier is better as the sooner you start, the sooner they will acquire the knowledge needed to access higher learning.
What’s the Best Age to Start?
The age at which children begin formal education across the World ranges. In Europe the UK are among the earliest, beginning at 5 in the UK, as with The Netherlands, and as early as 4 in Northern Ireland. This is very different in comparison to Scandinavian countries which start aged 6 on the whole and enjoy high levels of educational attainment with Finland, starting their formal education at 7 enjoying perhaps the highest level of educational achievement in the past decade. So does this indicate a later start will ensure better academic attainment? On its own no. The key is what goes on before the formal years. Regardless of the allocated year for the ‘Formal education’ to begin in any of the countries mentioned, the key to creating successful, well equipped learners is the input prior to it. In all the countries mentioned there are Kindergartens, Nurseries, playgroups, Pre-schools or such-like that provide these children with the stimulation needed to become enquiring learners, to activate the inquisitive parts of the brain.
Play or Learn?
In any good Early Years unit the focus of child development is learning through play. Whilst this concept is difficult for some parents to comprehend (I want them to learn not play, they can play at home!) it is the key foundation to successful learning and creating inquisitive, self motivated learners. Research into these field has tracked ‘play’ in early humans as an adaptation in early human social groups which enabled them to become powerful learners and problem solvers. Neuroscientists have provided research to support the view that play is a central mechanism in learning as playful learning leads to brain development and higher mental function. Children engaging in playful activity has been proven to support children’s early development of representational skills, which is crucial to language use. Indeed, research in the US by Christie and Roskos looked at evidence that a playful approach to language learning offers the most powerful support for the early development of phonic and literacy skills.
One of the common features of any Early years unit is construction play areas, blocks, planks and bricks. These are always a hive of activity and with good reason. When using these blocks, making structures, creating different configurations with them, children are developing their skills of emotional and intellectual ‘self-regulation’. This helps them develop awareness of their own mental processes.
Clearly play is an integral part of early development and a stepping stone to enabling the brain to prepare for more concentrated learning and application. So why would we try to reduce this and shorten this period when the brain and child are not ready? Why should we put a figure for all children to be ‘ready’ for the next step. Consider your driving lessons. How many lessons did it take you to be ‘ready’ for your test? Now compare this to your partner or your best friend, was this the same number? Was the number of lessons learnt on the road, behind the wheel not the same needed for two different drivers before they were ready to engage in independent driving, to steer themselves and work out when they needed to go faster, slow down or even stop and pause for a moment?
All qualified Early years teachers will be constantly monitoring the children, engaging with them and challenging their thinking, allowing them to enquire and explore their thinking. These teachers are the key components in the journey for the children. They are will be making informal judgements through formative assessment of where the child is in their learning and their readiness for the next step. They will be encouraging, nurturing and guiding the children to get to their goals and will be the most qualified person to ascertain when a child is ready for ‘formal education’. When they feel they are they will introduce elements of this, slowly, tactfully to engage and challenge the child. They will not suddenly change the timetable for all subjects, merely introduce one or two activities or guide them to different areas of learning where the child may further their learning or extend their newly discovered skills.
Moving into Year One, the school should recognize the transition facing the children. The school should look toward a phased introduction of formal teaching of the core subjects. Term one lessons should predominantly be continued enhanced provision through play with teachers continuing to assess and intervene with children who need that extra stretch or more formal approach. As the children move into term 2 the focus is on a balance between play provision and integrating a formal, more traditional approach to learning. By term 3 the lessons in Year One will be predominantly formally delivered with extra support and provision being given to those still not ready for this approach with play opportunities and free flow to outdoor learning readily accessible. This approach will ensure that all children are given time to develop naturally and meet the more formal approach when they themselves are ready.
Knowing when to put your child into formal education is not the question here, it is knowing your child and your school. A good school will know your child, know when they are ready and ensure they flourish. A good school knows when children are and are not ready, they will support and nurture those who still need further play to develop their skills.
Perhaps the question should be rephrased. Which school should you choose that will know when your child is ready to start their formal education?
The answer, a good school will know when your child is ready and will ensure they meet this prepared and enthused as an independent learner.
If you’re looking for the best school for your child to start the structured education, read about the Wellington College’s Pre-Preparatory School.