Schoolification isn’t working


Last month saw another article from across the Atlantic comparing ‘the joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland‘ with their stressed, ‘schoolified’ counterparts in America. This one, however, was followed up a week later with by a report in the Washington Post about the first actual comparative study of early years provision in the USA and Scandinavia. And The Gift of Time? School starting age and mental health, from the US National Bureau of Economic Research, shows what everyone in early years education already knows: schoolification isn’t working.

In the USA, the first grade class has always been known as kindergarten (K for short) and children are enrolled when they are five. Until the turn of the century, Grade K was a gentle, play-based introduction to education, in which children’s social, emotional and physical development were accorded at least as much attention as narrow definitions of ‘school readiness’. But all this changed in 2001 when George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation made standards of attainment in literacy and numeracy central to all educational practice.

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

By 2010 a ‘common core curriculum’ with tests and targets starting at Grade K, had ensured that ‘kindergarten’ is now actually the first year of formal schooling in the US, bringing it into line with Scotland (and, of course, England where the early-start policy originated). Concern about falling standards means the US government is also sponsoring pre-K classes for disadvantaged four-year-olds, in which school readiness is a central factor. As in other early-start countries, this has caused increasing anxiety among parents, and pressure on little children to start on reading, writing and sum-solving at an ever earlier age.

The NBER research mentioned above compares US education with that in Denmark where formal schooling starts at six. Before this, Danish children enjoy three years in kindergartens which still take a play-based, developmentally-appropriate approach to early years care and education. The NBER researchers don’t consider the effects of three years in an authentic kindergarten environment. They merely conclude that a one-year delay in the start of school dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity at age seven, a measure of self regulation with strong negative links to student achievement’, adding that these effects persist at age eleven.

Their conclusion reaffirms earlier long-term studies from the USA, listed on the Upstart evidence base. These include David Weikhart’s High/Scope Perry Project, of which he gives a powerful explanation on this video clip. And, as Weikhart points out, it’s not just educational achievement that suffers when children exposed to formal teaching before the age of six or seven – it’s mental health and well-being in general and the effects continue long after schooling has finished. The findings of Howard Friedman’s Longevity Project show that these ill-effects aren’t confined to disadvantaged children – his study focused on middle-class Californians who were ‘intelligent and good learners’. mother-99744_1920          

Not surprisingly, many US parents have already worked out the social, emotional and educational cost of early schoolification. According to the NBER paper, around a fifth of them now defer their children’s school entry, ensuring that they start their ‘kindergarten year’ at six, rather than five. It seems a fair bet that the parents who make this decision are well-read, middle-class parents (intelligent and good learners), meaning that the attainment gap in the US is likely to get worse as long as current educational policies are in place.  

As more research comes through, there’s likely to be increasing unrest about schoolification among the chattering classes of the USA. Sadly, however, just as our cousins across the Atlantic wake up to the damage their Race To The Top policy has caused, Scotland appears to be moving towards greater schoolification by introducing standardised testing of five-year-olds.

Why, oh why can’t we look North, to the joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland, a country whose early education policies actually work?

Sue Palmer

Let’s Hear It For Story and Song


By Sue Palmer

I love hearing little children sing – not just because it’s such a joyous sound but because I know from research how important singing is in human development.  The latest blog contains:

  • an extract about story and song from my forthcoming book on early years education
  • a brilliant powerpoint by Maria Kay who’s currently doing a PhD about music and literacy.   
Let’s Hear It For Story and Song!

Adapted from The Three Rs (Chapter 4 of Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need – to be published by Floris Books, June 2016)

There are two extremely helpful activities, threaded throughout the day in most European kindergartens, which children enjoy enormously, and which human adults have unconsciously used to develop children’s language and listening skills since time immemorial – story and songUnfortunately, in UK preschools and early primary classrooms, parental anxiety and ‘top-down’ pressure to meet literacy and numeracy targets mean practitioners have little time for these popular early years activities. But, as a literacy specialist, I’m convinced that over-focus on academic skills in the years between three and six is often counter-productive.  

children-246848_1280Let’s start with the developmental advantages of singing. Along with dancing and moving to music, it helps sensitise children to rhythm and pattern, develops their coordination and control (including the ability to articulate clearly), and enhances connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Singing is also very helpful for developing memory skills, upon which a great deal of human learning depends. All sorts of facts are easier to remember when set to music (the alphabet, for instance, and the times tables) and learning any song by heart helps strengthen children’s auditory memory – that is, the ability to remember increasingly long sequences of sound. This is vital for a species that communicates in the long sequences of sound known as language.  

It also explains why children enjoy songs, rhymes and musical activities so much. Nature has programmed them to do so. Evolutionary biologists believe that, even before homo sapiens developed language, Neanderthal parents were crooning to their off-spring and yodelling messages across the hunting grounds. And anthropologists tell us that every human culture that’s ever existed appears to have had a tradition of song and dance. So when an activity that aids learning comes so naturally to young human beings, it makes sense to encourage it. (‘Why do you do so much music,’ I once asked a Finnish kindergarten teacher. ‘Music trains the mind to pattern and the ears to sound,’ she replied, clearly amazed that any educator would ask such a daft question.)

Picture from Flickr

Picture from Flickr

Nature has also programmed children to enjoy stories. Listening to a well-told tale tunes them into the rhythms and cadences of speech and the more often an adult retells the tale, the more meaningful particular words and phrases become. The young listener thus finds it progressively easier to follow the thread of a narrative, understand the meaning of new words and expressions, and reproduce these words and phrases in their own speech.  When we read stories to children we also develop their auditory memory for the rhythms, patterns and devices of written English so that – once they’ve got phonics sorted – they’ll find it easy to follow the flow of written sentences, then paragraphs, then complete narratives.*  

Stories are important for thinking skills too. Repeated exposure to spoken narrative develops children’s capacity for linear, sequential thought – the sort of thought required for logical analysis (it’s no coincidence that we talk about being able to ‘think straight’). And since the actions of the characters in stories have consequences, narrative helps drive home the significance of cause and effect, not to mention offering insights into human behaviour and opportunities to ponder moral dilemmas. What’s more, while they’re listening to a story, children have to ‘make the pictures inside their heads’, a serious contribution to their long-term capacity for mental imagery and creativity.

Picture from Flickr

Picture from Flickr

And there are wider implications. The educational philosopher Kieran Egan maintains that homo sapiens is ‘a storying animal; we make sense of things commonly in story-form; ours is largely a story-shaped world‘ and that stories are basically ‘[mental] tools for organising our emotions‘. Since one of the most significant factors in early childhood is learning to understand and control emotions, this gives listening to stories an important role in self-regulation as a whole.

*Incidentally, children who’ve enjoyed lots of sing-songs should find it comparatively easy to sort out phonics, because singing aids the developmental of phonological awareness. This starts with children’s appreciation of the ‘beats’ words (syllables), then the significance of rhyme, and  finally their sensitivity to pitch – vital for discriminating different vowel sounds.

Now have a look at this powerpoint slide by Maria Kay, author of Sound Before Symbol (Sage Publications). It sums up how music and singing support the development of numerous subskills that underpin literacy development.  Unfortunately we can’t include animation for this slide, so that you can build up the subskills gradually, but if anyone wants a copy sent by We Transfer, please email 

For more information about Maria’s work see: Sounds and symbols

Pushing children at early ages likely to be unproductive


By Valerie Strauss  Washington Post August 17  2015

A new book by a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine says that the nationwide push to teach children increasingly more complex concepts at earlier ages is likely counterproductive. In The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You, Stephen Camara looks at at  an emerging body of research and finds, among other things, that:

  • Many schools force too much material onto the normally (and naturally) developing mind of young children and may inadvertently push children—especially boys—into looking like they have ADHD when they might not.
  • It is rare for a child to be precisely at “grade level: in every subject.

Camarata is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is also an associate professor of Special Education at Peabody College at Vanderbilt. This was adapted from “The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You” by Stephen Camarata, PhD. with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.

By Stephen Camarata

Given the nationwide push to teach children more and more complex concepts at earlier and earlier ages, you’d think that there surely must be an extensive scientific literature to support these efforts. Not only does no such data exist, but an emerging body of research indicates that attempts to accelerate intellectual development are in fact counterproductive.

Recently, a lead editorial in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Science, questioned why middle school children were being taught college and even graduate-school-level cell biology concepts when their developing minds were not yet ready to receive this complex information. How meaningful was rote memorization of features such as the Golgi apparatus, the editorial asked, if the children had not been taught the knowledge foundation and acquired problem-solving abilities in the underlying areas of cell structure, chemistry, and biology?

This problem is endemic to the entire educational enterprise, starting with preschool. Worse, the emphasis on “an overly strict attention to rules, procedure, and rote memorization” has extended even into the cradle, manifesting as “helpful guidance” to parents about how to “prepare” babies for future academic demands. The approach is displacing commonsense, intuitive nurturing time with “schoolwork” at home and in preschools across the country at ever younger ages.

Unfortunately, several factors are coalescing in modern society to change the emphasis in education from the development of reasoning to increased rote learning. Foremost is the ongoing pressure to “prepare” a baby’s brain to participate in traditional school-style learning at ever earlier ages. Many have questioned the wisdom of doing this, and a number of leading scholars have publicly worried about whether these efforts are damaging our children and stunting their intellectual growth. But so-called success in school is a high-stakes enterprise that weighs on the minds of parents from the time the baby is born, or even sooner.

In 2006, Dr. Ashlesha Datar, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, conducted a study comparing children entering kindergarten “on time” to those whose parents held them out for a year. Professor Datar reported: “I find that entering kindergarten a year older significantly boosts test scores at kindergarten entry. More importantly, entering older implies a steeper test score trajectory during the first 2 years in school.”

Consider the implications of this research. Simply waiting until a child is older dramatically increases scores on kindergarten entrance exams. Is the child more intelligent? Does she have a higher potential than she had the year before? No! It is simply a matter of schools trying to teach too much too soon. Parents are responding by simply waiting until their child is more mature and his or her brain is more fully developed in order to take on academic material that should be taught to older children.

The impact of accelerated testing has had a disproportionate impact on boys. Studies have shown that the highest scores on kindergarten entrance exams are attained by older females. Although it is certainly true that both boys and girls show significantly higher entrance scores if they test when they’re older compared to those who’ve entered kindergarten at the usual age, this difference is even more pronounced when comparing older females to younger males entering on time. When a boy who is perfectly intelligent and on target in terms of physical and mental development attempts to enter kindergarten at the usual age of five years old, he will be at a significant disadvantage relative to the older boys and especially relative to the older girls that parents have held out of kindergarten for a year.

More than 35 years ago, professors Ken Hopkins at the University of Colorado and Glenn Bracht at the University of Minnesota studied the stability of IQ scores in the same children by testing them each year over a 10-year period, from when they entered first grade through eleventh grade (junior year of high school). The results showed that the scores of the kids in their sample were highly variable—meaning unstable—from year to year in first, second, and third grade, and were relatively variable until after a child finished fourth grade. Only after that, when the children were around age ten or eleven, did the scores become much more stable.

This finding that IQ scores obtained in kindergarten and early grammar school are not very stable has been repeatedly replicated. Professor Michael J. Roszkowski, at American College in Pennsylvania, completed a study designed to examine whether the earlier results would be the same if different kinds of IQ tests were used. His findings were highly similar to those reported earlier: There was considerable variation in IQ scores when children were retested. He noted that 68 percent of the students had higher IQs in fourth grade than they had in first grade, with the highest gain being 27 points! In simple terms, this child went from average (IQ of 103) to gifted (IQ of 130) after only three grades. Consider what this means for kindergarten testing: A school would miss out on some very talented students if they mistakenly believed that early testing provides an accurate estimate of a child’s long-term potential.

But schools continue to use entrance testing regardless of its unreliability, and the pressure some parents feel to secure places in prestigious schools by the time a child reaches kindergarten has induced them to push their children to be “successful” test takers at ever younger ages, reaching down even into infancy. Parents themselves begin “teaching to the test” by drilling their toddlers on vocabulary, numbers, letters, and other items usually encountered on kindergarten readiness tests, well before babies’ and toddlers’ minds are ready to appreciate and integrate this knowledge.

In a nutshell, there are two primary difficulties parents must address in modern education: 1) an increasingly irrational, accelerated curriculum that pressures children to learn material— and parents to teach it—long before their developing minds are ready; and 2) a one-size-fits-all assembly-line process based on age level rather than ability level.

There are a number of potential solutions to these challenges, and they fall into two broad classes. First, parents can work within the existing public or private school system and with individual teachers to adapt the classroom—and its curriculum—to meet their child’s needs. The second solution is to seek an alternative education. Both solutions can be successful: The truth is that all good teachers naturally and intuitively meet their students where they are intellectually. Unfortunately, however, increasing federal, state, and district- wide micromanagement of curricula in many public schools and spillover of this approach into some private schools is making it difficult for even the best teachers to follow their own instincts about how to best engage and teach individual children.

My suggestion is to interact with the teachers and do your best to individualize your child’s lessons. A helpful strategy is to observe your children doing their assigned work and to notice which items they can easily complete, which are a bit more difficult for them, and which ones they simply cannot do. Work with the teachers so that your child is responsible for the easy items and the ones that are of moderate difficulty. Try to negotiate holding off on the impossible items until your child is ready.

A second strategy for intuitive parents seeking to address the mismatch between current educational practices in their child’s educational needs is to seek alternative programs. These can take the form of Montessori, Waldorf, or other schools that overtly and automatically individualize their curricula to meet each child’s developmental needs. Many public school districts offer charter schools or magnet schools that provide alternatives to a one-size-fits-all educational approach, and there are private options as well in many cities.

Other intuitive parents take on homeschooling as a potential alternative solution. Historically, homeschool programs were often organized around concerns that religious beliefs and values were not being included in public school curricula. More recently, many more homeschool programs have been developed specifically to foster academic achievement based on each child’s individual learning style. Homeschooling is not for everyone, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the roles of parent and teacher at home! On the other hand, for parents who are on board with it, homeschooling can be an excellent alternative to other kinds of education. This option and curriculum are available also available for limited amounts of time, and be very effective for when there simply aren’t good choices for schools at specific times in your children’s development.

Regardless of which solution is right for you, the key is to be actively engaged in your child’s education.

Valerie Straus

Summerborns and winterborns


Astonishingly, on 8th September, the English Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced in Parliament that ‘Children should not start school till they are ready!’

The bad news is: this wasn’t because of a sudden Damascene conversion to the Upstart cause. The good news is: Mr Gibbs insisted English local authorities change their policy on deferment because of Parent Power.

In early-start countries, the youngest children in a class suffer particularly badly and the schoolification of early education in England has now become so intense that, over the last few months, parents of ‘summerborns’ have risen in protest. The Summerborn Children website provided a rallying point for families, who pooled their knowledge and launched a concerted campaign.

Confronted with the evidence that ‘summerborns’ suffer throughout their lifetimes – and a rising tide of popular protest — the government had no choice but to allow parents to defer their children’s school entry if they wish.    

There have since been several articles in the press – including two by Alison Pearson and Suzanne Moore – illustrating typical problems faced by parents of summerborn children.  

hands-403536_1280Let’s hope the triumph of Parent Power in England has knock-on effects in Scotland where, due to a different admission policy it’s the parents of ‘winterborns’ who often find themselves fighting local authority decisions on deferment (see the website Taking Parents Seriously). Watch this space for a blog by a mother who’s finally managed to defer her son’s school starting date, after several months of struggle and anxiety.

Unfortunately, it’s only a small proportion of parents who are informed and committed enough to go through the deferment process. Many children who’ve just turned four – often those most in need developmental support – are still obliged to start school long before they’re ready for formal learning.  

The irony is that, if Victorian politicians hadn’t insisted on children starting school so early, there’d be no need for children and parents to go through these ordeals. In countries where school starts later, the relative age of children in a class isn’t a problem, because an extra year or two in kindergarten makes so much difference in terms of maturity and development.  

The ‘winterborn question’ is yet another reason why Scotland needs a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds.

Sue Palmer    


Upstart in the news


As the campaign is still in its early infancy, we weren’t intending to start blogging for a while but there was some unexpected press coverage for the campaign last week:

The National: Current education system is ‘doing so much damage to children’ say campaigners

The Scotman: Children should start Primary school at seven.

This led several new supporters in our direction, so it seems worth spreading around on social media in the hope of attracting more people to contact  At present, our main aim is to rally as many interested parties as possible to the Upstart campaign for a statutory play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven.   

In the coming months we’ll use this blog to expand on our reasons for believing why a kindergarten stage is important… and why it becomes more important every day in a quick-fix, fast-moving, 21st century world. But as a way of setting the stage, the short video below sums up the significance of play in children’s development.

It was created by the International Play Association (IPA) to support the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  And there’s a Scottish connection because one of Upstart’s earliest supporters, Theresa Casey, is currently President of IPA and was involved in composing the General Comment.  

There’s now overwhelming evidence that providing children with space and time to play – particularly in the early years – helps ensure their long-term health and well-being.  What’s more, rather than relying on some narrow concept of ‘school readiness’, active, creative play is an essential element in helping young children become committed, successful lifelong learners.

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart     

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