When Did Education Become a Race?

Starting in September, nearly 600 schools, in school districts across Ontario will offer full-day kindergarten for 4-and 5-year-olds. And in British Columbia, full-day kindergarten begins for approximately 50 per cent of 5-year-olds.

When did education become a race? According to world-renowned family therapist and parenting author Steve Biddulph (www.stevebiddulph.com) full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds is too long, and any younger is a big mistake developmentally. In support of Biddulph’s claim, a major review of British primary schools by Cambridge University included a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research, which stated the practice of allowing children to start school at age four was found to be stressful.

Yet authors Anna Riggall and Caroline Sharp found that in some countries where students start school up to two years later, many outperform their English peers. The authors conclude: “While the value of high-quality pre-school education is beyond dispute, the assumption that an early primary school starting age is beneficial for children’s later attainment is not well supported by the research evidence.”

Biddulph says the calendar is a poor guide for when a child should start school. Decades of research has shown that most boys (and some girls) are slower to develop fine-motor and language skills. Many of these children would benefit from an additional year in kindergarten–full-day senior kindergarten. They could begin Grade 1 at age seven, when their fine-motor skills are ready for pencil-and-paper work.

In his web article, We Can Do Better By Boys, Biddulph writes: “In English speaking countries, boys make up more than 80% of all remedial classes. In Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and many other countries where school [Grade 1] does not begin until age seven, this gender gap in literacy does not exist…hence the idea of boys delaying starting school till they are at least six. It can mean a choice between your son being one of the youngest in his class, feeling inadequate, being the least able, or being one of the most co-ordinated and confident by waiting and starting the following year–and having this remain so all the way through school. Professor Kathy Sylva at Oxford University recently reported findings that starting school too soon creates a failure mentality, while Kindergarten–which used to be a year of play, activity, and social learning–has succumbed more and more to pressure for skills learning. This compounds the problem.”

Biddulph writes in his best-selling book, Raising Boys: “This (later start) needn’t be done rigidly. It can be based on some simple screening of fine-motor skills and in consultation with parents and school staff. Many schools today have to dissuade parents whose attitude to education is to see it as a race, and wish to enroll children earlier and earlier as if they can get a head start! Thoughtful parents will understand the benefits of a delayed start for boys, once these are explained.”

Educators in several European countries have promoted this idea for years, and it has paid off not only in happier children, but also in terms of academic success and far fewer drop-outs.

Why is Finland’s school system the envy of the western world? In the Aug 23/30 edition of Newsweek, not only was Finland listed as the best country in the world to live in (out of 100 countries), it also ranked number 1 in terms of their school system.
See: March 16, 2010. Newsweek – article: Secrets of the World’s Best School Systems

Although all Finnish children have access to free, full-day daycare (up to age five) and full-day kindergarten (age six), they don’t begin primary school [Grade 1] until age seven. Finland has consistently been among the highest scorers worldwide in the international assessment for student performance. The World Economic Forum ranks Finland first in enrolment and quality, and second in math and science education.

It’s easy to understand why many parents like full-day kindergarten, as it is convenient for those who would otherwise seek out daycare for the other half of the day. But kindergarten is more rigorous and task-oriented than daycare, and most 5-year-olds will find full-day kindergarten too demanding. In kindergarten there is less opportunity for free play, which is crucial for a child’s development.

Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) comments: “… [Jean] Piaget once said, ‘play is the work of childhood’. Piaget was one of the greatest living psychologists of our time.” (Listen to the interview at cbc.ca (broken link))

What B.C. and Ontario governments should be doing instead is creating full-day senior kindergarten classes for those 6-year-olds who would benefit.

If a Canada-wide survey was done of parents who enrolled their own children in Grade 1 at age seven–especially parents who are teachers themselves–I’m certain the vast majority would say it was one of the best decisions they ever made as parents.

Children need good models and so do governments. Although it may be too late to put full-day kindergarten on hold for 2010-2011 in B.C. and Ontario, their governments should investigate the Finland model. Not to do so is to choose expediancy over reason.

For more information, listen to an interview with Carl Honoré, (www.carlhonore.com) author of “Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood” (www.cbc.ca/wordsatlarge/blog/2008/04/under_pressure_by_carl_honore_1.html (broken link))

David Buckna
Kelowna, B.C.

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