Until October 2015 (The Gift of Time: school starting age and mental health) there didn’t appear to be any research into the relative effectiveness of different kindergarten systems or the optimum length of attendance at kindergarten. Just like the UK, countries around the world take their school starting age for granted and, since preschool education is not usually mandatory, little attention has been paid internationally to the contribution of particular preschool systems to children’s educational success (or failure).
The case for Upstart is therefore based on research from a range of related areas, including:
- International surveys of educational success and childhood well-being
- Research into developmental psychology and early years education
- The significance of play (including outdoor play)
- Longitudinal studies showing no long-term advantage and significant social and emotional disadvantages to early schooling
- Language, literacy and educational achievement
- Scottish research relating to child development and educational achievement
- Finnish early years educational policy
(Click on each of these bullet points for a selection of key references.)
In June 2015, these strands of evidence were brought together in a book – Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need by Sue Palmer (Floris Books).
International surveys of educational success and childhood well-being
Ever since international PISA comparisons began, countries with later school starting ages have performed better than those with early starting ages. Finland, which has a world-renowned play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds, has always been among the highest scoring nations.
The most recent PISA results were published in December 2016.
In the UK, considerable investment in formal schooling over the last decade has not narrowed the attainment gap.
The first UNICEF survey of child well-being, in which the UK came bottom, was in 2007: ‘An overview of child well-being in rich countries’. Florence: UNICEF, 2007.
In the second, the UK had made a little progress but is still severely out-ranked by other European countries, all of which have a later school starting age: UNICEF. ‘Child well-being in rich countries: a comparative overview’. Florence: UNICEF 2013
The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy has reported falling standards in the three Rs in recent years, specifically among disadvantaged pupils.
Research into developmental psychology and early years education
- Recent overviews of research-based early years practice: Developmental Psychology and Early Education by David Whitebread (Sage 2012) and The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years, ed Pam Jarvis et al (2016).
- International developmental theory and practice: Giants of the Nursery: a biographical history of developmental practice by David Elkind (Redleaf Press, 2014)
- Research-based arguments for a later start to formal education in the UK: Too Much, Too Soon: Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood edited by Richard House (Hawthorn Press, 2010)
- A Charter for Early Childhood as proposed by the Early Years Forum (an alliance of UK organisations involved in early children care and education).
There are many fascinating studies, research summaries and videos avaikable from the Harvard Centre for the Developing Brain, e.g.
The latter study contains this quote:“By age three, most children can organize themselves to complete tasks that involve two rules, thus showing that they can direct and re-direct their attention to make deliberate choices (mental flexibility), maintain focus in the face of distraction (inhibitory control), and hold rules ‘on line’ as they figure things out (working memory)…
Older preschoolers are capable of concious problem-solving that involves the ability to shift their attention from one rule to another that is incompatible with the first, and them back again… They also have the capacity to inhibit responses that are inappropriate even if they are highly desiderable… or habitual… and to execute multi-step, deliberate plans.
By age seven, some of the capabilities and brain circuits are remarkably similar to those found in adults.”
The significance of play (including outdoor play
- In August 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics published ‘The Power of Play: a pediatric role in enhancing development in young children’ by Yogman, Garner et al, summarising the biological evidence for play’s involvement ‘in encouraging the development of… executive functioning skills; and improving life course trajectories.’
- Two recent summaries of research: Play it’s in their DNA (2015) by Dr Aric Sigman and The Role of Play in Human Development by Anthony Pellegrini, Oxford 2009
- The US National Institute for Play collates international research on play’s significance in human development and overview of the significance of different types of play
- Play Scotland provides research-based information on play for the Scottish government. A short summary can be found in ‘What is Play?‘
5. Play and mental health: ‘The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents‘ by Peter Gray in The American Journal of Play, Spring 2011 and Free Play and Children’s Mental Health by David Whitebread in The Lancet (November 2017)
6. Decline of outdoor play: ‘Natural Childhood Report‘ by Stephen Moss (National Trust, 2012).
7. For evidence about the importance of outdoor play, see: http://www.
8. In terms of ‘readiness for education’ play’s contribution to children’s self-regulation skills is particularly important. See ‘Play and Self Regulation‘ in The American Journal of Play, Autumn 2013 by E Bodrova et al. Since then, there has been a further study, ‘Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning’ JE Barker, AD Semenov et al Frontiers in Psychology, 17-6-14
9. ‘On ‘becoming social’: the importance of collaborative free play in childhood‘ by P Jarvis, S Newman and L Swiniarski International Journal of Play, 2014)
Longitudinal studies showing no long-term educational advantage and significant social and emotional disadvantages to early schooling
There are of our knowledge NO longitudinal studies showing that an early start on formal education confers a long-term advantage. The following research – which indicates that it is counter-productive – is from early-start English-speaking countries:
- ‘Early educational milestones as predictors of life-long academic achievement, mid-life adjustment, and longevity’ by Margaret Kern and Howard S Friedman in Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2008 found that ‘early school entry was associated with less educational attainment, worse midlife adjustment, and most importantly, increased mortality risk’. The subjects were high-ability, middle-class Californians. (The findings were later included in The Longevity Project by Howard Friedman and Lesley Martin (Penguin, 2011)
- ‘Moving Up the Grades: Relationships Between Preschool Model and Later School Success‘ by Rebecca Marcon in Early Childhood Research and Practice, 2002 looked at two groups of black American children, one taught formally in kindergarten and one allowed to play. Although the first group began school at an academic advantage, this decreased as time went on and by the age of 11 Group 1 was performing less well than the children who had begun formal education later
- Lasting Differences: The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study through Age 27 by L Schweinhart and D.P. Weikart (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. No. 10. Ypsilanti, MI. High/Scope Press, 1993). This project followed three groups of disadvantaged children in the USA who had different educational experiences between 5 and 6 (A – structured teaching; B – free play; C play-based learning + daily structured discussion with the teacher). Group A experienced many more emotional, social and behavioural problems during their subsequent school careers and more problems in social adjustment during adulthood.
David Weikhart, the researcher, describes the project on this powerful video clip:
4.‘Pathways to Reading: The Role of Oral Language in the Transition to Reading‘ by the National Institute of Child Health and Development’s Early Child Care Research Network in Developmental Psychology, 2005. This concluded that ‘environments rich in language stimulation and conversation will not only build general language skills but will also have the positive consequence of supplementing vocabulary and metalinguistic skills’. The reverse is not necessarily true. That is, simply teaching vocabulary and phonemic awareness, although perhaps necessary, would not be sufficient to buttress general language skills.
5. ‘School Readiness: Integration of Cognition and Emotion in a Neurobiological Conceptualization of Child Functioning at School Entry‘ by C Blair in American Psychologist 57, (2002) US research review
6. ‘The effect of school entrance age on academic achievement and social-emotional and emotional adjustment of children‘ by Brenitz Z and Teltsch T in Psychology in the Schools, 1989
7. See also an article by one of the USA’s most respected developmental psychologists, Alison Gopnik: Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School, www.slate.com, 2011
8. Lively Minds: distinctions between intellectual and academic goals for young children by Lillian C Katz, University of Illinois (DEY, 2015)
9. ‘Early Social and Emotional Functioning and Public Health: the relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness’ by Damon E Jones PhD et al in American Journal of Public Health, online July 15th 2015 showed that, in a twenty year study, teacher-rated social competence in kindergarten [age 5] was a consistent and significant indicator of both positive and negative future outcomes across all major domains: education, employment, criminal justice, substance use and mental health.
(On the same day the BBC reported a survey of 1,180 UK head teachers, in which 66% rated pupils’ mental health as a major concern.)
10. The Gift of Time: school starting age and mental health by T Dee and S Sievertsen (National Bureau for Economic Research, October 2015). A follow-up report in 2018 showed that the benefits of delaying formal schooling had persisted until age 11.
Language, literacy and educational achievement
Many Scottish children start school with inadequate language skills. The research listed here, combined with the studies in the previous sentence, suggests that expecting them to read and write at four or five is (a) counterproductive and (b) unnecessary – see (5) and (6).
- Ready to Read: closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in Scotland can read well (Save the Children on behalf of the Read On Get On campaign, 2015)
2. Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years Iram Siraj-Blatchford and Kathy Sylva (DfES Research Report 356, 2002) This project found that ‘sustained shared thinking’, involving talk around a shared experience, was a significant factor in developing children’s language skills.
3. Too much too young (DVD available from Mills Productions: firstname.lastname@example.org) – a documentary made for ITV’s World in Action series with the assistance of many speech and language specialists, showing how children’s listening and language skills are developed in European kindergartens
4. Foundations of Literacy Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley (Network Continuum, 2004; fourth edition 2015) suggested that early literacy education should first concentrate on the following: Learning to Listen; Time to Talk; Music, Movement and Memory; Storytime; Learning about Print; Tuning into Sounds; Moving into Writing.
5. ‘Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier’ by Sebastian P Suggate, Elizabeth A. Schaughency and Elaine Reese in Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28, 2013 followed two groups of children in New Zealand : Group 1 began formal literacy instruction at age 5, Group 2 at age 7. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two, but the Group 1 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than children who had started later.
6.‘Reading in Kindergarten: nothing to gain and much to lose’ Nancy Carlton Paige, Geraldine Bywater McLaughlin and Joan Wolfsheimer Almon (2013)
The following report includes a video link to the authors outlining their research and concerns.
7. ‘Watering the garden before a rainstorm’ Sebastian P Suggate in Contemporary Debates in Childhood Education and Development ed Suggate S and Rees E (Routledge, 2012) A review of all the evidence for and against an early start on reading.
Scottish research relating to child development and educational achievement
- Growing Up in Scotland is a longitudinal study covering of the lives of children born in 2000 and 2010. The most worrying findings relate to a growing gap between rich and poor in terms of educational achievement and life-chances. This starts early, e.g. Thrive at five: developmental differences on starting school between children from different socio-economic backgrounds
There has been concerted action to increase support for disadvantaged families during the first three years, including greater access to childcare. However, the assumption remains that children will start school at 5, despite considerable variation in ‘readiness’
- The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) has reported falling standards in the three Rs, in recent years specifically among disadvantaged pupils. Two recent reports also highlight the significance of children’s family background in terms of early failure in reading: and ‘Read on; Get On: a mission to ensure ALL children in Scotland are reading well by 11‘ (2014) and ‘Ready to Read: closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in Scotland can read well’.
- Among middle class parents, an increasing number are choosing to defer their child’s entry to primary school: see Early experiences of primary school, 2012
- See also the section on early years in A Common Weal Education: how schools could deliver transformational change and put equality at the heart of education by Professor Brian Boyd (2014)
Finnish early years educational policy