Too much too young?
The key to resolving our educational crisis lies in successful and positive action in the early years. Research has shown that children who have attained their sixth birthday can be a year older or younger in biological and physical development, intellectually up to two-and-a-half years older or younger, and in social development the variation can be as much as three years either way. I wonder just how many children are really ready for producing 'desirable outcomes'.
The government's proposals to introduce more content to the curriculum at an even earlier age, and to monitor early years education more closely, does not solve the problem of later underachievement and disaffection. It could be said to create the problem. The government health warning on the school prospectus should read: 'Too much too soon in formal education, and overemphasis on academic knowledge at a very young age, can be detrimental to a child's social, emotional and intellectual health.'
The likely outcome of such extensive hot-housing in our genetically modified curriculum is that many children will develop a deep sense of failure, become disaffected or underachieve. Boys, who develop more slowly than girls and are outperformed by girls at every stage now, are likely to sink even deeper into an educational Slough of Despond. Pre-school and early school experiences must be of the highest quality and appropriate to the individual child's needs if we are to avoid further crisis.
Why is it that Hungary, for example, enjoys greater academic success than England? It is largely because of the approach in the early years, which moves children slowly and with empathy from concrete operations to the representational, avoiding abstract concepts until at least six or seven years of age, dependent on the child's personal development. Here, we push children into the abstract at three and four years, with emphasis on reading, writing and recorded arithmetic. Meanwhile, our European neighbours concentrate on promoting confidence and precision in the spoken language alongside social skills, providing a solid foundation for effective learning later. There is often insufficient recognition that language development precedes literacy skills, and an inappropriate early emphasis on literacy can be counterproductive, damaging later educational development. Spoken language is the foundation for written language, which if introduced too early could impose demands that exceed the child's capacity; and written language post-dates reading.
The educational process is not like a factory production line. Schools do not have quality-controlled raw materials on entry. An appropriate pre-school education extended to the age of six or seven would allow time for us to facilitate social and cognitive development with widely varying socioeconomic intakes, and move a more homogeneous group on to the formal stages of education while not losing sight of the individual's needs.
If the government wishes to make comparisons with European standards in education then it should give credence to the effectiveness of current European practice, and reflect it in its own. English education could then become wholesome and healthy.
Geraldine Everett is a teacher, support coordinator and counsellor, and is also active in the Professional Association of Teachers. She writes here in a personal capacity
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999