Early years experts join forces over later school start

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A focus on 'school readiness', testing at an ever-earlier age, and the downgrading of play threaten 'profound damage' to a generation of children, a group of experts warns today.

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More than 800 people, including many leading names in the early years sector, have united in backing the ‘Too much, too soon,’ campaign ahead of a national day of action next month.

The list includes the chief executives of the largest sector organisations and nursery groups, as well as child experts, psychologists, academics, teaching unions and MPs.

The group’s concerns include Government plans to introduce baseline testing for children starting reception, which is currently being considered by ministers.

More than 120 experts and supporters have signed an ‘open letter’ published in the Telegraph today, including Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the first children’s commissioner for England, psychologist Penelope Leach, psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, Professor Lord Richard Layard, director of the Well-Being programme at the London School of Economics, and MPs Barry Shearman and Annette Brooke.

The letter says that ‘very few countries have a school starting age as young as four’, and criticises the Government for failing to view early childhood  ‘as a crucial stage in its own right’, and instead seeing it as ‘preparation for school’.

It goes on to say, 'For many children today, nursery education provides their only opportunity for the active, creative and outdoor play which is recognised by psychologists as vital for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.'

It also voices concerns about policymakers’ focus on ‘tests and targets’ for young children and says that the two qualifications currently being developed – Early Years Teacher and Early Years Educator – no longer require training in how children learn through play.

It points to the success of Scandinavia where children start school at six or seven and where children achieve better educational results and have higher levels of well-being, suggesting that many of the problems in the English system, such as the gap in achievement between poorer children and their peers, boys’ reading, and the ‘summer-borns’ issue, could be tackled by re-thinking early years policy.

The letter says, ‘Instead of pursuing an enlightened approach informed by global best practice, successive ministers have prescribed an ever-earlier start to formal learning. This can only cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children.

‘We as a sector are uniting to demand a stop to such inappropriate intervention and that early years policy-making e put in the hands of those who truly understand the developmental needs and potential of young children.’

Wendy Ellyatt, the founding director of the Save Childhood Movement, said, ‘We really need a national debate about the purpose of the education system and the meaning of success. Who is the system for? What is it serving? And in what ways do its values relate to the needs of the future?

‘We all know things aren’t right, but there currently seem to be a growing wave of concern from exhausted practitioners and teachers working at the grassroots level that it’s time we actually did something.’

On 30 October the campaign is holding a National Day of Action, calling for the establishment of  a new National Council on the Science of Child Development to review all future educational policy-making.

It is also calling for the development of Child Rights and Wellbeing Impact Assessments for all new civic policies.

But a Government spokesperson said that the letter’s signatories represented the views of a ‘badly misguided’ group.

‘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,' a spokesperson for education secretary Michael Gove said.

‘We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer  - a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about "self image", which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.’

  • Supporters can sign the petition, Stop developmentally inappropriate policy-making in the early years

The Day of Action on 30 October will start at Horse Guards parade at 11.15 followed by a march past Parliament at 12.30, and lobbying of MPs in the Houses of Parliament at 4pm.

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