Better education starts later

Too much too soon: David Whitebread on the evidence for a later school starting age.

Children participating in pre-school activityThere is much current debate in the UK and elsewhere about timing the transition for young children between play-based pre-school provision and formal schooling. When are children ‘ready’ for school?

The direction of travel in the primary school curriculum over the past couple of decades has been towards an earlier and earlier start to formal instruction, and an erosion of learning through play. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, reported in the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Start schooling later than age five, say experts’, argued that this has been a mistake. Their concerns were dismissed as ‘misguided’ by ministers within the DfE, who argue that ‘earlier is better’, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Despite these protestations, the evidence from international comparisons, and psychological research on young children’s development as learners, all points to the advantages of a later start to formal instruction, particularly in relation to literacy.

Children in England are currently admitted into reception classes in primary schools at age four (if their birthdays are in the summer months, when only just four). This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of other European countries, many of which have higher levels of educational achievement and child well-being. There the most common school starting age is six (or even seven in some cases, for example Finland). And the pressure is on, from the moment children in England enter the reception class, for them to learn to read, write and do formal written maths. In many local authorities and schools, children are identified as ‘behind’ with reading before they would have started school in many other countries.

A considerable body of evidence clearly indicates the crucial importance of play in young children’s development, the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling, and the damaging consequences of starting the formal learning of literacy and numeracy as young as four years of age. By contrast, there is no body of research showing the advantages of an earlier start to schooling.

The evidence regarding the role of play in children’s learning comes from anthropological, neuroscientific, psychological and educational studies. A range of anthropological studies of children’s play in extant hunter-gatherer societies (Gray, 2009) and evolutionary psychology studies of play in the young of other mammalian species (Pellegrini, Dupuis, & Smith, 2007) have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups, and that enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuroscientific studies have supported this view of play as a central mechanism in learning. Pellis and Pellis (2009) have reviewed many studies showing that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

A range of experimental psychology studies have consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful rather than instructional approaches to learning in children (Whitebread & Jameson, 2010), and have identified two crucial processes which underpin this relationship. First, playful activity has been shown to support children’s early development of representational skills fundamental to language use. Christie and Roskos (2006) reviewed evidence that a playful approach to language learning, as opposed to formal instruction, offers the most powerful support for the early development of phonological and literacy skills. Second, through all kinds of physical, constructional and social play, children develop their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation,’ (Ponitz, McClelland, Matthews, & Morrison, 2009) which have been shown to be the key predictors of educational achievement and a range of other positive life outcomes (Whitebread, 2010).

Within educational research, a longitudinal study by Marcon (2002) demonstrated that, by the end of their sixth year in school, children whose pre-school model had been academically directed achieved significantly lower marks than for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes.

A number of other studies have addressed the issue of the length of pre-school play-based experience and the age at which children begin to be formally taught the skills of literacy and numeracy. In a longitudinal study of 3,000 children funded by the DfE itself, Sylva et al. (2004) showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education made a significant difference to academic learning and well-being through the primary school years, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Studies in New Zealand comparing children who began formal literacy instruction at age five or seven have shown that by the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at five developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension, than the children who had started later (Suggate, Schaughency, & Reese, 2012).

This evidence raises important questions about the current direction of travel for early childhood education policy in England. It complements an equally substantial body of evidence for the worrying increase in stress and mental health problems among children in England and other countries where early childhood education is being ‘schoolified’ (Gray, 2011). This work suggests strong links with the loss of playful experience and increased achievement pressures. In the interests of children’s educational achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously.

Dr David Whitebread is Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

  1. Christie, J. F., & Roskos, K. A. (2006). Standards, science, and the role of play in early literacy education. In D. G. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1(4), 476–522.
  3. Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443–463.
  4. Marcon, R. A. (2002). Moving up the grades: Relationship between preschool model and later school success. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1) p. 517–530.
  5. Pellegrini, A. D., Dupuis, D., & Smith, P. K. (2007). Play in evolution and development. Developmental Review, 27(2), 261–276.
  6. Pellis, S., & Pellis, V. (2009). The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
  7. Ponitz, C. C., McClelland, M. M., Matthews, J. S., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). A structured observation of behavioral self-regulation and its contribution to kindergarten outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 605–619.
  8. Suggate, S. P., Schaughency, E. A., & Reese, E. (2012). Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlierEarly Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(1), 33–48.
  9. Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2004). The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project (Technical Paper 12 - The Final Report: Effective Pre-School Education). London: DfES / Institute of Education, University of London.
  10. Whitebread, D. (2010). Play, metacognition and self-regulation. In P. Broadhead, J. Howard & E. Wood (Eds.), Play and learning in the early years. London: Sage.
  11. Whitebread, D., & Jameson, H. (2010). Play beyond the foundation stage: Story-telling, creative writing and self-regulation in able 6-7 year olds. In J. Moyles (Ed.), The excellence of play (3rd ed., pp. 95–107). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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