GUEST POST: How Early Should The Early Years Be?

Let me first introduce myself and explain why this blog won’t be as expertly written as it usually is. On a previous blog Zoe quotes Hemmingway, “the first draft of everything is shit.” For Zoe, this is a comfort to her in reading her first drafts. I’m sorry but my final draft is still a bit stinky, but it will have to do. Anyway, as well as being a not-so-slick -logger I am also a qualified teacher with experience in KS1 and lower KS2. I taught for 5 years before hanging up my interactive whiteboard pen for motherhood. Three and a half years as a Stay At Home Mum (SAHM) has taught me more about early education than 5 of years teaching.  I’m not suggesting motherhood should be a necessary aspect of teacher training or outstanding teaching by any stretch of the imagination, but it has most definitely cast a plethora of colour across my previously black and white views on education. 

As educators, we regularly debate the pros and cons of well, everything. One thing that we all bemoan is the governments constant need to leave a mark and flip flop between fads and fashions, regardless of their suitability in preparing children for the changing world that we live in; but that is another argument for another (and doubtless previous) blog.

When it comes to discussing early years education in this country you cannot have a conversation without someone throwing Finland into the mix. In a very basic nutshell, Finland’s education system is free for all and concentrates on real play based learning for much longer than in this country. Early childhood education and care is from age 0-5, and comes in many forms but is essentially an informal setting. This is followed by Pre- Primary education (what we call ‘preschool’ or ‘nursery’ here) and then formal education, which starts at aged 7. Compare that to our little nippers starting at aged 3 in nursery or pre-school and compulsory education from aged 4-5 and one might assume that we in the UK produce genius adults, considering the number of hours of formal education they rack up. Well, no. Finland outperforms us in the PISA rankings year after year. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but many scholars, parents and teachers have put this success down to the holistic approach and starting school when the children are truly ‘ready to learn’.

In the U.K., if you have the money, you can make the decision to send your child to a Montessori or Steiner school. These schools have a more practical and play based learning approach – where children aren’t ‘moved on’ until they are ready to learn. Some hard-line Steiner schools insist the moment when children are ready to learn is when they lose their first milk tooth around age seven but the theories behind that are too many and too complex for a single blog. I’m not sure that I buy into the loss of baby teeth signalling readiness to learn – but it is rather novel to imagine that moment: Billy runs to you in assembly (that the head teacher is conducting) with his proud grin, clutching a blood-tinged canine tooth and thrusts it into your palm for safe-keeping, “Congratulations Billy, you’ve graduated to the desk and chair level of education, grab your books and crack on with your 2 times tables”. 

Where do I stand? Well, first, let me tell you where I stood. Pre-children I was adamant that we start formal education too soon. I felt that instead of building an education system that best prepared children for the future we had an education system that provided free childcare from a early age and pushed children to acquire facts and knowledge far beyond their capabilities. I believed that starting so early was especially damaging to those children who were struggling to keep up in Reception and then fully giving up by the end of Year 1, at the age of six, a full year before the Finnish children even start school. It’s not uncommon to hear KS1 teachers say, “There’s such a huge difference in maturity between Year 1 and Year 2′ – they’re so much more ready to learn.” Is there any truth to that? Have they simply learned how to learn by Year 2? I will say that I was truly convinced.

Then I had a child. I swore there was NO WAY I would be sending her to nursery at 3. Then by 22 months old she knew all her shapes, all her colours, the alphabet in and out of order and was speaking in full sentences – without any coaching or pushing. I adjusted my stance, ‘Well she’ll benefit socially,’ I told myself. ‘I could send her for one or two sessions, it’s play based anyway.’ Then, by two and half, she was getting very frustrated if she wasn’t pushed (she also had a baby sister who took up a lot of my time.) Her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable she had cognitively outgrown the home setting. Which is how she, at 3, came to be the child that attends nursery 5 sessions a week and I became the parent who was sat in a nursery office asking my child to be pushed more because she was getting bored and acting out…

I am aware that my daughter is slightly unusual – but by no means unique. Whilst she is extremely bright she is by no means alone, plenty of children are at or near her level in her nursery. They are ready to learn, they are grumpy when they don’t. Suffice to say this has altered my perspective significantly. However, my experience does also remind me of the many children who are not at all ready at 4 when we trot them off to school (post obligatory first day selfie) and deposit them for 6 long hours of learning. What is the answer?

Personally, I wonder if we are a tad too obsessed with age and peer relationships. Though theoretically it is possible to advance children up a year or keep them back to repeat it very rarely happens. The stated reason usually being ‘it will hamper their bonds with peers’. Wouldn’t it make more sense though if Billy, who isn’t ready for Year 1 just did another year in Reception and Brandi, who is a year ahead, moved up a year? If it became the norm they wouldn’t stand out, if they didn’t stand out they wouldn’t be left out. They’d just be more comfortable working at the level they need to be working at. That way the early years could start early or not so early. The children would build and develop a real confidence in their ability. The social mobility might even help children develop better social skills and differentiation in lessons would be more on point because teachers wouldn’t be torn between the children who are two years behind and the ones pushing on two years ahead.