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Should children be able to read and write before they start school?

Child genius doing maths at blackboard
Emily Organ asks if parents should be educating their children at home before their school days have even begun.

My eldest son is four and is about to start school in September. I’ve discovered that when your child reaches this age, education becomes a hot topic. Friends are talking about their children writing their names, reading short words and doing basic maths. The general consensus is that boys are less interested than girls. My son certainly isn’t interested.

I wasn’t worrying about this until we opened our son’s birthday cards. Despite my friends assuring me their sons weren’t interested in learning, what did I find? Most of the boys had written their own names. Why couldn’t our son write his name too?

Early learning – is it necessary?

I’m not worried about our son’s abilities. He met all of his milestones at pre-school and they’re very happy with him there. They tell me that this stage in a child’s life is all about ‘learning through play’.
A friend of mine who is a Reception year teacher agrees: “Parents are always asking what they can do with their children at home. I tell them to read books with them but that’s all. There’s no need to worry about teaching them to read and write. And if you do too much before they start school there’s a danger they’re being taught by conflicting methods, they lose interest or they’re bored when at school.”
However, won’t my son feel left behind when he sees what these other children can do? I feel pressured to be working on these things with him. But he rarely has a pen or pencil in his hand, he doesn’t like drawing or painting and he gets cross if we try to look at letters or numbers with him. There are a few things we manage to do while playing, such as counting trains and cars. But all he really wants is to run around dressed up as Sportacus or Batman, read books and watch CBeebies, like most four year olds. So isn’t that what we should let him do?

Schooling at four – is it too early?

The UK is unusual in sending children to school at four. Children start school aged six in a number of European countries including Ireland, France, Germany, and Italy. In some Scandinavian countries children are seven when they start.
And this early start doesn’t seem to benefit Britain in the international educational league tables. Our children leave school with a very average level of achievement when compared with other countries.
A recent review into primary education by Cambridge University recommended that children should not start formal lessons until they’re six. It stated that younger children should experience ‘play based learning’, otherwise those who struggle with formal education at four and five could be put off completely. The current Early Years Foundation Stage for children under five stresses the importance of learning through play.

Competitive parenting

So why are parents quick to impose the ‘three Rs’ onto their children? It can only be that dark side of parenthood: competitiveness. It starts with how old your baby is when they roll, sit up and walk and continues throughout a child’s life. But maybe it’s time we backed off.
When my son starts school next year, he’ll have at least fourteen years of education ahead of him. Shouldn’t these precious few pre-school years be devoted to play and learning basic life skills?
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