For years many parents and child development experts have been
asking whether British education is a case of too much too young.
Most four year olds are now in reception classes despite clear
evidence that their needs may be better met in specialist
Alarmingly, the latest statistics from the Department for
Education and Skills (DfES) show there are now 3,400 three year
olds in infant classes, reflecting a small but growing trend. A
spokesperson for the department was unable to shed light on which
local authorities are admitting three year olds and how their needs
are being catered for.
Lesley Staggs, national director for the foundation stage (the
first part of the national curriculum) at the DfES, believes these
children are probably in foundation stage units for three to five
year olds. She says: “As long as the staffing is right, I would see
that as positive. What matters is the way in which it’s done,
and how you recognise the differences between individual
children’s learning needs. Our line is that a reception class
is an entirely inappropriate place for a three year old.”
The UK is out of line with Europe on the school starting age,
where most children don’t begin until six or seven. However,
most countries do have some form of day care which children attend
before they start formal education. By around the age of nine,
children from countries with later starting ages have generally
caught up with and sometimes overtaken British children.
Since the 1980s schools have admitted children at the age of
four, rather than at the statutory starting age of five. Caroline
Sharp from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)
says: “There’s been a trend away from schools having a
three-point entry towards all children starting in the September
after they are four. LMS [local management of schools] created a
financial incentive for schools to admit very young children and it
was known that summer-born children didn’t do quite so
Closer examination of the evidence shows that summer-born
children are better off staying at pre-school longer. Research from
NFER indicates that putting children into reception too young
actually reduces their achievement at the end of key stage 1 (age
seven). Among the older, autumn-born children, those with a full
reception year did best. But for summer-born children, those with
the full reception year did not do as well as those of the same age
with one or two terms less at school.
The trend towards children starting earlier is continuing. In
the London Borough of Waltham Forest, for example, where plans are
afoot for two entry points into reception, there are worries for
the viability of long-established nursery provision.
Staggs says it is vital that we hang on to our nursery schools
as centres of expertise in early years provision. Indeed she sees
no reason why five year olds shouldn’t be taught in
nurseries. “The problem is our whole cultural attitude.
There’s this myth that we don’t do literacy in the
nursery and that somehow it’s better to be in reception. One
of the greatest compliments you can pay a parent is to say,
‘look she’s doing things you would expect of a five
year old’. But why would you want a three year old to behave
like a five year old?”
Sue Owen, head of the early years unit at the National
Children’s Bureau, agrees that mixed age classes for three to
five year olds can work well. “The theory is that the older
children benefit from the nursery approach rather than the younger
children losing out. You have to look at how the class is
organised, the staffing and their qualifications. Nursery schools
generally meet the needs of young children best because they are
designed around them and funded to deliver nursery education.”
In 2000 Staggs wrote new guidance for the DfES on the foundation
stage, drawing on best practice in play-based learning for three to
five year olds and emerging research on effective teaching. In
April this year a team of regional directors was established under
her leadership to provide expert support to local authorities on
effective practice in the early years.
Despite these promising moves, Staggs acknowledges that there is
a long way to go until best practice is reflected in all reception
classes. For example, opportunities for stimulating outdoor play
are often poor. She says: “It’s as fundamental to early years
as IT is at key stage 2. It’s about making sure that schools
understand children’s learning needs.”
Another problem is that reception classes are all too often
taught by staff with little training in the developmental needs of
young children, and little understanding of the principles
underlying effective play-based teaching. Staggs says: “Reception
teachers often say that it wasn’t part of their training.
Even for those who were trained in the early years, it was quite
marginal and not given the same status as subject areas.”
Staggs adds: “There is a long way to go before best practice is
reflected in all reception classes.”
Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from the
Pre-School Period, Institute of Education, March
2 Transition from Reception
to Year 1, An evaluation from HMI, May 2004 available at
3 Adams, Alexander, Drummond
and Moyles, Inside the Foundation Stage: Recreating the
reception year, ATL, 2004
What kind of provision is best for three and four year
Pre-school experience, compared with none, enhances
Disadvantaged children in particular
benefit from good quality pre-school experiences, especially if
there is a mix of children from different backgrounds.
Children who start pre-school younger (but not under three) make
more progress, but children who attend full-time do no better than
those attending part-time.
Children do better in settings where:
- Staff have higher qualifications, including a good proportion
of trained teachers, and less highly qualified staff are led by
- Staff have a good knowledge and understanding of the curriculum
and how children learn.
- Staff are skilled at supporting children in resolving conflicts
and helping parents support children’s learning at home.
- There are lots of opportunities for “sustained shared thinking”
between children working one to one with an adult or another
- Play is used as the basis for teaching.1
What happened to play time?
A recent Ofsted2 report found that teaching in
reception classes was “good” in half the 70 sessions they observed
in 28 different schools, but that in one in six teaching was
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)3
undertook a study of reception class practice in seven different
LEAs. The findings indicate:
- Opportunities for high quality learning experiences were few
and far between.
- Adult-led activities were given priority over free choice with
few opportunities for sustained, complex imaginative play.
- Few opportunities for activities based on first-hand
experiences that encourage exploration, observation,
problem-solving, prediction, critical thinking, decision-making and
- Examples of activities to keep children busy that were neither
challenging nor interesting such as sticking ready-cut puppets onto
lolly sticks or writing strings of numbers with no function.
The ATL study also reported teachers feeling under pressure to
prepare children for formal education rather than meeting their
needs as four year olds. But it also highlighted warm supportive
relationships between children and teachers and a desire by
reception teachers to resolve the problems.