The education of a child of seven years

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Children should not start primary school until they are six or seven-years-old, according to a coalition of education experts who warn of the damaging pressure to perform in class at a young age. A letter written by 130 teachers, academics and authors said the UK should follow the Scandinavian model and put off formal lessons for two years. Under the UK’s current system, children start full-time schooling at the age of four or five. The warning singled out recent government proposals which mean five year olds could be formally tested from the beginning of their schooling. Under the current system, children are first assessed at the age of seven. The group of experts warned that monitoring a pupil’s progress from such a young age promotes stress and fear around learning. The continued focus on an early start to formal learning is likely to cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children’.

These people represent the powerful and badly misguided lobby who are responsible for the devaluation of exams and the culture of low expectations in state schools,’ the spokesman said. Sir Al Aynsley-Green, former Children’s Commissioner and one of those to sign the letter, said countries where children start school later, see better results. If you look at a country like Finland, children don’t start formal, full-scale education until they are seven. These extra few years, in my view, provide a crucial opportunity, when supported by well trained, well paid and highly educated staff, for children to be children’. Other signatories of the letter include Lord Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics, Dr David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at Cambridge University, and Catherine Prisk, director of Play England.

The Telegraph said the letter was circulated by the Save Childhood Movement, which will launch its Too Much, Too Soon campaign tomorrow. It will reportedly call for reforms including play-based schooling for children between three and seven. Wendy Ellyatt, the founding director of the movement, told the newspaper: ‘Despite the fact that 90 per cent of countries in the world prioritise social and emotional learning and start formal schooling at six or seven, in England we seem grimly determined to cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later. There is nothing wrong with seeking high educational standards and accountability, but there is surely something very wrong indeed if this comes at the cost of natural development. It’s time to man up, Harry!

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Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. This is a brief review of the relevant research evidence which overwhelmingly supports a later start to formal education. There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies. In my own area of experimental and developmental psychology, studies have also consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children.

Pretence play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Within educational research, a number of longitudinal studies have demonstrated superior academic, motivational and well-being outcomes for children who had attended child-initiated, play-based pre-school programmes. One particular study of 3,000 children across England, funded by the Department for Education themselves, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households. Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7.

Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. This body of evidence raises important and serious questions concerning the direction of travel of early childhood education policy currently in England. In the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.