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Children 'start school too early'

Lessons at age of four is out of step with rest of Europe, Stormont told

By Lindsay Fergus

Concerns about the age children start school in Northern Ireland — the lowest in Europe — have been raised by Stormont’s education committee.

Children start their primary school education here at the age of four, which is two years younger than the European average.

The committee heard yesterday that there are arguments both for and against the policy that has been adopted by the Department of Education.

However, there is broad agreement that any curriculum for children aged four and five should focus on play instead of educational achievement. Alliance’s Trevor Lunn, who is a member of the committee, said: “It always worries me when I see us completely out of line with so many other countries.

“There are 30-odd countries in Europe who are all taking a different view to us. There is so much evidence that we start school too early.”

Mr Lunn added: “I hope the minister is going to seriously address this.”

While Education Minister John O’Dowd has ruled out any immediate changes to the school starting age, he has agreed to look at the controversial issue through the draft Early Years Strategy.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “I am fully aware that we have one of the lowest school starting ages in Europe and believe that there may be merit in looking at this issue.

“During consultation on this draft strategy references were made to the school-starting age.

“Therefore, while the department has currently no plans to make a change to the school starting age, I will consider the comments made and issues raised as part of the Early Years Strategy consultation, and consider any implications these might have for the school starting age in the wider context of policy development, including consideration of other less formal, more flexible approaches to the starting age.”

The committee is to write to the minister for an update on the success of the foundation stage, which was introduced in 2007.

It is the curriculum for pupils in primary one and two and focuses on the arts, language and literacy, mathematics and numeracy, personal development, physical development and movement.

Emphasis is placed on play- based learning sessions, oral language tasks, shared and guided reading, phonological awareness activities, practical and mental maths sessions.

The committee also expressed support for flexibility on the school start age, particularly for children with May/June birthdays after they heard evidence that pupils who are young in their year tend to perform at lower levels than their older peers.

Background

The Department of Education is currently analysing issues raised following the consultation on its draft Early Years (0-6) Strategy in June 2010.

The purpose of the new strategy is to set out a vision and plan for ensuring better outcomes for children by improving the provision and quality of services to the youngest, their parents and families, for the next five years.

A key aspect of the draft strategy is the transition from pre-school to the foundation stage of the revised curriculum, which aims to ensure that children are introduced to education at a pace that takes account of their age and maturity.

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