Let Them Eat Mud

To misquote Marie Antoinette, ‘Let them eat mud.’

That was my initial response to the recent suggestion by Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw that our children should start school at the age of two. What’s more, I believe the UK should seriously consider actually delaying the age at which formal education should begin by following the example of much of Northern Europe and the Nordic nations.

As the father of two boys, who was happy to send his children on a part-time basis to nursery from aged six months, I certainly do not advocate that young children should not attend some kind of child centred provision as soon as practicable and perhaps more significantly, affordable. However, surely this should be done in order that our offspring learn to creatively play, express themselves and have fun, rather than to cram their heads with times tables, Shakespeare and the periodic table.

It’s as if many of our educationalists resent children being given the chance of enjoying the freedom and sheer joy of their early years and I personally despair at the relentless drive to formalise every facet of their lives, almost from before they are born. Indeed, I’m reminded of that moment in Blackadder 3 when Rowan Atkinson is bemoaning the possibility of William Pitt the younger thwarting his plans by becoming Prime Minister and goes on to imagine that the country will soon be ruled by ‘William Pitt the embryo.’ Now I realise that some anti-natal experts advocate playing music to unborn babies, but I’m reasonably certain that Mozart grew up to be a musical genius because he was simply born with incredible natural ability, rather than because his mother inundated him with music whilst he was in the womb.

So rather than obsess about how soon we should formally educate toddlers, for that’s what two year olds are, might we better nurture our children and shape more highly educated adults, if we were to consider actually delaying the age at which formal education begins? Germany and many of the Nordic nations do not insist upon classroom-based formalised educational structures until the age of six. Whilst are children are sat in classrooms, all too often learning by rote, many European youngsters are out climbing trees, building dens, and swinging on ropes and, whisper it, even in the cold and rain. In other words, learning through adventure and exploration in the natural environment. Yet, Liz Truss, the UK Children’s Minister, apparently favours more ‘teacher-led nursery sessions,’ as she presumably agrees with Sir Michael Wilshaw that too many children when first attending primary school “can’t hold a pen, have poor language and communication skills, don’t recognise simple numbers and can’t use the toilet independently.”

Whilst it may well be true that some primary aged children lack basic skills, is it necessary for their long term development and prospects that they should have mastered those skills at aged four, when many traditionally begin school? Some experts would suggest not. David Ludlow, the director of daynurseries.co.uk is certainly of the view that “assessment at a young age would undermine natural development“, and that “we need to change the notion that starting sooner means improved results later.

Furthermore, what are these results that we want our children to achieve? Do we simply want our children to be able to regurgitate facts? Passing exams in parrot fashion with insufficient creative thinking? Certainly from my own parental experience, it seems as though my youngest son, who will next month begin his GCSE examinations, has been constantly assessed and tested from the day he started primary school. Yes, he’s progressed well through our hot-house school system, but his enthusiasm for learning has been diminished by the constant need to pass exams, prove he’s making ‘progress’ and to fulfil his role in contributing to his school’s league table performance.

Mr Wilshaw is of the view that those who challenge the idea that you can’t start formal education too soon are nothing but the ‘chattering classes’ who fear ‘children’s childhoods are being stolen’. While I certainly agree with the latter sentiment, I reject the former. What is more, even if the chattering classes do hold this view, it doesn’t make them wrong.

Whilst Sir Michael believes that the poorest neighbourhoods are being let down by a “confusing” system which is leaving the most disadvantaged youngsters without a decent start in life, surely what is letting down so many youngsters the most is the fact that they’re disadvantaged by being poor. It’s the issue of a burgeoning number of families suffering falling incomes in insecure jobs that really needs addressing, because the real issue here is the increasing toleration of rising poverty levels by those in positions of authority, and by those in government.

This, along with a cosy conformity amongst all three major political parties putting forward an educational agenda obsessed with annual testing, assessment and examination, is what really stifles young minds. All whilst the creative skills associated with the arts are being squeezed from the curriculum, because it’s not what business needs. How exactly the needs of business were allowed to supersede the moral imperative of having well educated young people, I’m not really sure, because what they mean by education all too often actually means training for the world of work, rather than educating children to participate in and embrace the world of opportunities that they should all be encouraged to aspire to.

But the most recent encroachment by business into our schools is psychometric tests. Yes, really. This is absurdly being done to ‘develop and instil character and resilience into our pupils’, because they are qualities ‘business leaders want the educate system to concentrate on, with the support of all shades of political opinion. Again, I despair.

Surely, what businesses need, good business at least, are engaged, well educated and inspired young people, who have been provided with opportunities to discover their real talents. However, as long as the unspoken root cause of the cycle of disadvantage faced by the poorest, which is insufficient income, goes unchallenged, a poverty of aspiration passed on by struggling and dispirited parents will continue. Hidden talent and ability will remain just that, hidden and what is truly unforgivable is that the programme put in place by the previous government, including Sure Start, which had begun to address that very issue, has seen cuts to its funding, with five hundred such centres closing since 2010.

So my message to educationalists, policy makers and politicians, not only as a parent, but as a former school governor, is simple. Invest in all of our children. Expand and do not close down the Sure Start centres that where beginning to make real progress in tackling some of the issues highlighted by Ofsted. Instead, consider the Nordic model of schooling and whilst our children are at preschool, don’t formalise their education too soon. Let them eat mud.