Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Come on Stormont, let our kids start school at age six

Class politics: should kids start school later?

Wonderful news from Nick Clegg this week that school pupils are to receive free meals for the first three years of school. An announcement he made in Scotland, where no pupil would benefit. A proud boast he made to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the latter two of whom would also not benefit.

Of course, the people of Northern Ireland won't begrudge school children in England their health-enhancing, family debt-busting free lunches because we rest assured that our own politicians in Stormont know how to look after their youngest constituents.

We sleep easy at night confident in the knowledge that as soon as Health Minister Edwin Poots has his energy back from fighting the opportunity for gay people to transform the lives of kids who have never known the love of a parent by adopting them, he'll be right onto this free dinners for four-year-olds thing. Because nothing matters more to Edwin Poots than the wellbeing of children.

Of course if we take heed from education experts, we might ask what children of four are doing at school in the first place. This week a letter sent to the Daily Telegraph from the campaign group Save Childhood advised that research suggests formal education is of little benefit before the age of six, and may come, in the words of the group's founding director Wendy Ellyatt, at the cost of natural development.

Ellyatt points out that "90% of countries in the world prioritise social and emotional learning and start formal schooling at six or seven". Her letter, signed by 127 of the country's leading education experts, was highly critical of English schools' 'grim determination' to 'cling on to the erroneous belief that starting sooner means better results later'.

I don't know if Ellyett is aware that Northern Ireland brings children into formal learning even earlier than its cousin and has, in fact, the youngest starting point in Europe. But bearing in mind this nation's legendary ability to display grim determination to cling on to erroneous beliefs, it might not surprise her.

I'm just one mum who knew my four-year-old wasn't ready for school. For me and many others whose requests to keep their unprepared, distressed babies at home for a few more months have met with cold flat rejections from schools, this is an area of education in which Northern Irish policy shows not just an absence of common sense, but a lack of compassion.

The question of why tiny toddlers, some of whom aren't fully toilet-trained and still panic in large groups, should be forced into classrooms to spend the day being cuddled by concerned teachers (and those are the lucky ones) has long been ignored. Instead, Stormont has flown gaily in the face of modern research and pushed trembling cubs into the lions' den.

So while we might wonder at Mr Poots' priorities regarding children's welfare, this week's promise from Education Minister John O'Dowd that he looks favourably upon introducing a degree of flexibility into the school starting age offers some hope. However, the language around the subject remains weaselly, even among MLAs who support the idea in theory but continue to trumpet the benefits of the current system except for in a small number of 'special cases'.

Bearing in mind what a godawful mess Stormont has made of the exam and entrance procedure, wouldn't it be great if MLAs broke the habits of a lifetime, looked at the bald facts and stole themselves some higher ground by becoming the first parliament in the UK to allow its kids their childish freedoms until the age of six? Just a thought.

I'm just one mum who knew my four-year-old wasn't ready for school

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