The United Kingdom is world-renowned for its top-ranking universities and academic prowess. However, according to the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developments (OECD) international student assessments, published in December 2016, we're not doing as well as you might think. Although the UK is climbing year-on-year in terms of results, we still rank 15th, 21st and 27th worldwide for science, reading and maths respectively. In addition, according to the European PISA 2015 test results, the UK sits outside the top ten school systems in Europe at #12.
Why is it that we're not ranking higher in the league table? Cultural differences play a part (the OECD stress the fact that context matters), but we decided to dig a little deeper by looking at some educational-related factors such as school starting age, years spent in compulsory education and total number of days spent in compulsory education.
School Starting Age
All the European countries that outrank the UK in the PISA 2015 results have a school starting age of six or seven years old. Northern Ireland has the youngest starting age (starting compulsory education at the age of four), while the rest of the UK starts compulsory education earlier than most of Europe at the age of five. In fact, there are only two European countries outside of the UK that expect children to start school before the age of six. Pupils in Malta and the Netherlands also start compulsory education at five years old.
"The early years of schooling have become much more highly pressured, with tests and targets for academic performance starting at five years old. Over the same period, our educational performance has declined."
Sue Palmer, Upstart Scotland
The decision to start compulsory education at five years old in the UK has been around since 1870 under the Education Act, where elementary education was seen as a way to keep poor children off the streets. It was determined by politicians rather than education experts. The compulsory school starting age in Northern Ireland was established in 1989 so that each child could receive a full 12 years of schooling.
But, today, some children in England, Scotland and Wales are starting school even earlier than five years old, as the current law states that all schools can admit children from the September following their fourth birthday. This means that those born in the summer are sometimes having to walk through the school gates at four years old: a full year before the compulsory starting age. If they don’t, they’ll miss out on Reception class and access to up to a full seven years of primary school education.
The Summer Born Campaign was launched to highlight the need for greater flexibility around the school starting age in the UK, and for those children who aren’t ready at four years old to be able to wait a further year. “One of our biggest frustrations is that our education law was designed to allow parents the flexibility to decide whether to enrol their summer born child early or at compulsory school age… but over the years, this morphed into all these children starting school early or else face penalties such as a Year 1 entry or a missed school year later on”, states Pauline Hull, editor of the Summer Born Campaign website and co-founder of the Summer Born Campaign. “Given the increasing academic curriculum and structure now in Reception and Year 1, which even some autumn born children struggle with socially and emotionally, the problems for summer born children forced to start school at age four are only further exacerbated. A positive education experience for summer born children (social, emotional and academic) is not only good for them, but for teachers, their classmates, and in the long term, society too.”
“Putting a focus on academic attainment too early can potentially cause a number of negative results, not least for the youngest children.”
Sue Cowley, teacher, author and presenter, also highlights the negative effect that starting early can have on children’s wellbeing: “I’ve seen a number of parents reporting on the stress that is being caused to their young children by an early emphasis on the academic side of education. This is being caused, to a large extent, by the new curriculum and by high stakes accountability.” Sue goes on to say that research shows that, where children begin formal education later, they very quickly catch up.
Total number of years spent in compulsory education
Naturally, the school starting age ultimately affects the total number of years and total number of days spent in compulsory education. In terms of the school year, pupils in Finland spend only three days less in school than pupils around the UK. However, they don’t start school until seven years old and are part of the top-performing schools in international league tables.
In fact, it’s Finland’s performance that has allegedly inspired Ireland to reconsider the school starting age. Under new proposals produced by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), primary school children will not study traditional subjects until the age of 10. Instead, they will focus on creative play throughout the early years in primary school.
Play versus formal education
Wendy Ellyatt, Chief Executive at Save Childhood Movement agrees with Pauline and Sue that formal education from an early age is not beneficial. Instead, she believes there needs to be more of an emphasis on the benefits of play-based learning for early childhood, as this gives children the time needed to develop their social, emotional and physical capabilities that are so important for later learning. “There is no research evidence to support the ‘earlier is better’ view. On the contrary, evidence for the benefits of play-based learning in early childhood shows that those nations where children start formal education later (up to the age of seven) achieve better results on average than those who start formal education earlier. Forcing children to perform tasks that go against their natural developmental instincts may produce short-term results, but often at the cost of long-term motivation and enjoyment.”
It is this belief that children in England are starting formal learning too early that led the Save Childhood Movement to launch their ‘Too Much Too Soon’ campaign. The campaign highlights how an early start to education may be damaging to children’s later academic achievements, as well as their wellbeing.
Scotland have also launched their own campaign against the school starting age. Upstart Scotland highlights how Western countries with the best academic success don’t start formal schooling until children are seven, instead introducing a kindergarten stage that provides opportunities for children to learn through play. Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland, former head teacher and author of Upstart: The case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need, told us that the diminishing focus on play can be directly linked to the decline of the UK’s academic performance.
“In the past, the UK got away with its ridiculously early start to formal schooling because, during out-of-school hours, children had plenty of opportunities for the active, self-directed outdoor play, which is vital for healthy all-round development. But, during the last couple of decades, this sort of play has disappeared from most children’s lives, while the early years of schooling have also become much more highly pressured, with tests and targets for academic performance starting at five years old. Over the same period, our educational performance has declined, while mental health problems among children and young people have begun to spiral out of control.”
The solution? Sue Palmer believes that a shift in focus will alter our academic success and (arugably most importantly) benefit children’s wellbeing. “We urgently need to change the ethos of early years education by introducing a well-funded kindergarten stage for three to seven-year-olds, with the emphasis on social and emotional development and outdoor play. That’s what the most successful Western nations have, and that’s what the under-sevens need to grow up whole and healthy, bright and balanced.”
What do you think – would starting school at a later age or spending less overall time in education place us in the top 10 performing countries in Europe? Or, placing academic achievements aside, is starting school later more important for pupils’ overall happiness? Let us know in the comments below.
European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2016. Compulsory Education in Europe – 2016/17. Eurydice Facts and Figures. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.