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Many of you who have read my reviews will already know I object very strongly to the mandatory school enrollment age of 4 in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland requires children to start P 1 often only days after their 4th birthday, and quite frankly I believe this is far too young. Northern Ireland has the lowest compulsory school starting age in Europe, comparing only with countries such as China and North Korea. Based on my vehement objection to this many might conclude I am against early education. In fact nothing could be farther from the truth. What I am against is mandatory school starting ages so young. I believe very firmly that children begin learning at birth, and very possibly even before. I believe an enriched environment in the early years is crucial to later development, and I am all for pre school programmes for very young children for those families who wish to take advantage of them.
I believe every child reaches certain levels of maturity at different ages, and therefore don't believe there can be one age that is perfect for all children to start academic studies. Just as we can not find one pair of shoes to fit every child in a given district, neither is one set age ideal for every child to start to read, write, or spend the day away from home. Instead, I believe in flexibility.
The USA is a world leader in providing early education to children from disadvantaged families. Some 40 years and countless millions of dollars later, there is no evidence to show that these programmes have had any lasting affect. On the other hand, when we look at the work of pioneers like Maria Montessori, there can be no doubt of the vast improvement made in children's lives. I think there is great potential in early childhood education, especially for children from deprived backgrounds, but I think early childhood programmes should be child led, like Montessori's, and should be at a parent's choice, not required. Our current school starting ages are a relic from a Victorian past that wanted to remove children form the corrupting influences of their parents, as well as provide a younger work force for the factories with early school starting ages meaning earlier school leaving ages. Do we really still need this system?
My dream would be to see a school system with a much later mandatory school starting age of 7, like Sweden. I think for most children under 7, the ideal way to learn is through play, and the best place to learn is at home. But I recognise this does not suit every child or every family. Ideally, I would like to see parents choose when their children start school anywhere between 3 - 7, with the option of home education for older children. I would also like parents to have the option to send children to school for some classes, and teach the other subjects at home.
There is huge outcry at the number of jobs that would be lost be delaying mandatory school starting age by even one year. But wouldn't a better solution be for those parents who want to send them to school early to do so. And a great many would. If the classes end up a bit smaller, all the better. The teachers would have more time for the children who did attend. For those parents who chose not to send the children to school, a home based programme would be much more economical, as well as producing better long term results. Support could be given in the form of an educational visitor, much like a health visitor who could advise new parents on providing learning opportunities at home, as well as possibly providing some books, and reading tuition for the parents if needed. I say this because I have known people who do not read to their children simply because they can not read even a child's book out loud with confidence. Supporting these parents would cost less then current educational provision for children and provide more benefits. Not to mention the fact that these parents might better break out of poverty themselves with proper reading skills.
Numerous studies have shown the only programmes to show concrete and long lasting benefits in early childhood education are those that did involve parents. I recall one American study in which poor single mothers in a deprived area were recruited for a programme which taught them how to teach their own children. The results were amazing 25 years later with a most of the children graduating university.
But I also think traditional preschools are an absolute necessity for many as well. If a child is not read to, and exposed to rhyme by a certain age, reading will always be more difficult. A child's brain does most of it's growing and forms most of it's connections by age 6. I believe a child deprived of learning opportunities before this age will always be deprived. I honestly know children who didn't really learn to talk until nursery, for the simple reason that no one really talked to them at home. The progress they made in only a few weeks was incredible. I believe nurseries should always be available, and free of charge for those who can not pay. But I think rather then academics, they should focus on play and exploration, with plenty of exposure to books, puzzles, games, music etc... I would like to see schools offer a play based curriculum, with academic instruction to small groups according to each child's own abilities and readiness. I would like to see a programme where each child is encouraged to learn at their own pace, without pressure, and always made to feel valued and self confident. I think children should be free of pressure of tests and such at early age and allowed to enjoy learning. To let knowledge be it's own reward, as most children have a natural desire to learn and explore before this is unfortunately squashed by education.
Of course I recognise things don't change that much. So we will continue to home educate, where we can allow the children to bloom in their own time. But I think a complete overhaul of the educational system, into a more child centred programme might allow many children to reach their full potential, and in the long run create a more stable and pleasant environment for all of us.