Select Committee on Education and Employment First Report



55. Five years of age has been the starting point for school education since the Education Act 1870. Thus children in the UK have entered school one or two years earlier than their peers in other countries, including most of Europe and North America. The 'early entry' of British children should be compensated by informal education offered to children in Reception classes where children of varying levels of maturity are taught through informal means and at a pace appropriate for the child. The trend over recent years has been that in practice children enter school as 'rising fives'—in other words as four year olds.

56. In December 1994, our predecessor select committee produced a brief Report which drew attention to the fact that between 1983 and 1993 the number of children under five attending school had increased by 25 per cent.[77] The latest statistics record 100 per cent of four year olds participating in some form of education, with 57 per cent of four olds attending infant classes in primary school.[78]

57. Many of those giving evidence argued that the age of school entry was less important than the kind of curriculum and teaching young children encounter when they enter statutory schooling.[79] The Pre-School Learning Alliance expressed concern that most children start primary school when they are four years old,[80] and that this was in effect a lowering of the starting age for school which had occurred "without recourse to either public or parliamentary debate and without evidence to support the efficacy of such a change".[81] There was concern that the younger, summer-born children in particular could be intimidated by an earlier start to their schooling.[82] In their joint paper, the Early Childhood Education Forum, the Local Authority Early Years Co-ordinators Network and the Early Childhood Unit called for the present Reception year to be placed outside statutory schooling and into the Early Years stage, with the consequence that children would always enter primary school after their fifth birthday.[83]

58. We have been concerned by the evidence that parents have come under inappropriate pressure to enrol their children in Reception classes before they are ready. That pressure may come from a number of sources, including:

  • the need for schools to 'capture' pupils to secure funding for places
  • parents feeling that they will miss out on their school of choice if they do not take up a place at the earliest opportunity
  • school settings providing a cheaper solution to childcare needs than alternatives which may cost money or offer fewer hours
  • a single September date of entry in many local education authority areas.

We recommend that the Government should review the limitations in practice on the operation of parents' choice for entry to primary school, to ensure that the needs of children to be placed in appropriate settings are paramount.

17. Ms Margaret Hodge, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Employment and Equal Opportunities at the Department for Education and Employment, told the Sub-committee that she felt strongly that the argument over the school starting age was "redundant".[84] What mattered, in her view, was whether the nature of the experience was appropriate to the age and stage of development of the child.[85] Professional and parent groups[86] alike believe that, provided the teaching and resources are appropriate to the age of the child, the age of statutory schooling should remain at the term after which children turn 5 years.

18. We recommend that the compulsory age of school entry should remain at the term after the child's fifth birthday; and the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage should be fully implemented in primary schools to ensure that children receive the style of education appropriate to their stage of development.


19. There should be a sensitive transition from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1. Baseline Assessment currently takes place in the first half of the first term in Reception. All maintained primary schools are required to adopt a baseline assessment scheme accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Since the start of the autumn term 1997, teachers have assessed all new 4-5 year old pupils within seven weeks of starting primary school. The assessment covers as a minimum the basic skills of speaking and listening, reading, writing, mathematics and personal and social development. There are more than 80 schemes of baseline assessment accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Teachers are able to use the information from the baseline assessments to plan their teaching to match individual children's needs. It is the intention that, over time, schools will be able to judge children's progress against their original baseline assessment.

20. Early Education warned that "the current focus on targets for older children in reading, writing and mathematics inevitably tends to limit the vision and confidence of early childhood educators. Such downward pressure risks undermining children's motivation and their disposition to learn, thus lowering rather than raising levels of achievement in the longer term".[87] The Professional Association of Early Childhood Educators[88] called for early formal assessment to be abandoned: "inappropriate formalised assessment of children at an early age currently results in too many children being labelled 'failures', when the failure, in fact, lies with the system".[89] The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are working towards a common assessment to allow for national comparability.[90] Now that the Reception year is part of the new Foundation Stage, there are grounds for reconsidering the best time for the child's first formal assessment.

21. We recommend that baseline assessment should be moved to the start of Year 1. This would enable teachers in Key Stage 1 to have a description of where children are in their learning in order to enhance practice and to serve as a baseline from which to measure children's developmental progress.


"Learning for young children is a rewarding and enjoyable experience in which they explore, investigate, discover, create, practise, rehearse, repeat, revise and consolidate their developing knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes. During the foundation stage, many of these aspects of learning are brought together effectively through playing and talking."—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 20.

22. Children need more than to be kept in a safe place. Building on previous efforts to set out desirable learning outcomes from Early Years education, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has been working with professionals in the field to develop an appropriate approach to Early Years education. The Early Learning Goals[91] published in 1999 by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority were broadly welcomed by Early Years workers,[92] parents and the press. They consist of six domains of learning and development and specify particular knowledge, skills and attitudes in each of them which most children should acquire during the Foundation Stage (3 to 5+ years). The areas of learning are:

  • Personal, social and emotional development
  • Communication, language and literacy
  • Mathematical development
  • Knowledge and understanding of the world
  • Physical development
  • Creative development.

Their strong focus on personal, social and emotional development makes quite clear that the motivational and affective side to learning is as important as the cognitive side.

1. Early Years practitioners have also welcomed the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's more recent Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage[93] which offers a detailed description of how children can be supported in development, related to each curricular area. The many ways adults can support children's learning are described in the Guidance document and present a complex array of teaching strategies, some of them instructional. Most relate to 'teaching' through informal, play-based means in which children are invited to learn through exploration and play. The extract in the Table below from the QCA's Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage illustrates the recommended approach to the early learning goals for behaviour and self-control, as part of the curriculum for personal, social and emotional development. The role of the practitioner in listening to children and communicating with them and their parents is clearly brought out.

"Successful personal, social and emotional development is critical for very young children in all aspects of their lives and gives them the best opportunity for success in all other areas of learning."—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 28.


Progression from age three to the end of the foundation stage

Stepping stones Examples of what children do What does the practitioner need to do?
Make connections between different parts of their life experience. Alice pushes the playdough with the palms of her hands, adds more flour and pushes again. 'This is how I help my mum to make pizzas,' she says. Provide activities and opportunities for children to share experiences and knowledge from different parts of their lives with each other Develop positive relationships with parents.
Show a strong sense of self as a member of different communities, such as their family or setting. The children have been brought together to discuss watching a mother bathing her baby earlier in the session. The children talk about babies and younger brothers and sisters at home and how they are cared for. Rehana said, 'My mum puts oil on my baby sister's skin when she has had a bath.' Create a feeling of openness so that children are able to learn from one another and from each other's family experiences. Anticipate the best from each child and be alert to their strengths.
Have an awareness of, and show interest and enjoyment in, cultural and religious differences. Have a positive self­image and show that they are comfortable with themselves.. Harry looks at the 'weaving loom' created from wire netting on the garden fence. He asks the practitioner how to do it, who says, 'Why don't you ask Shamimara? She wove the streamers in the netting. She can show you.' Later, Harry and Shamimara look at books showing people weaving in different countries.Charlie is a wheelchair user. When the practitioner asks the group for help in finding the repeated phrase in the big book they are using, he volunteers. 'I can read it. I am a good reader.' He propels the wheelchair, unaided, up to the book where he points to and reads the words. Strengthen the positive impressions children have of their own cultures and faiths and those of others. Ensure that materials and images used and displayed are accurate and non­stereotypical.Give children opportunities to be curious, enthusiastic, engaged and tranquil, so developing a sense of inner self and peace.
Understand that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs, that need to be treated with respect. Understand that they can expect others to treat their needs, views, cultures and beliefs with respect. Bulent's brother had got married and he was showing the photographs to a group of children. They talked about why the bride had money pinned to her dress and, with the practitioner, talked about the different customs they had experienced at weddings. Encourage children to talk with each other about similarities and differences in their experiences and the reasons for those similarities and differences.Ensure all children are given support to participate in discussions and to be listened to carefully.

Source: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, 2000, pages 42-43.

2. The Curriculum Guidance stresses the role of play as the vehicle of most learning in the Foundation Stage, especially for children of the younger ages:

"Learning for young children is a rewarding and enjoyable experience in which they explore, investigate, discover, create, practise, rehearse, repeat, revise and consolidate their developing knowledge, skills, understandings and attitudes. During the foundation stage, many of these aspects of learning are brought together effectively through playing and talking".[94]

"There is no division between play and work, for children's work is play, and its importance cannot be over-emphasised."—Asquith Court Early Years Curriculum, 1999, Page 7

3. There is wide variation in Early Years settings in the teaching skills (in their widest sense) of the workforce.[95] There is also disparity in the resources for play[96] (and thus for learning).


Brent was playing on his own with the 'small world' toys. 'This one's going to get the lorry ¼ but the car comes in ¼ this is dad—no, no, no ¼ now you'd better go to bed.'—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 56.

Paul was intrigued by the automatic barrier in the car park. He set up a stick across two chairs and raised it, saying, 'Barrier up!' every time anyone came through.—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 56.


A group of children was being visited by an elderly neighbour of the setting. She had been invited to join the group, show her lace and demonstrate how lace is made. The children gathered round and sat quietly while she told them all about it.—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 32.

The children were very excited when the local city farm brought a lamb to visit them. They all wanted to hold the bottle to feed the lamb, but waited quietly until it was their turn.—QCA Curriculum Guidance, page 36.

4. We support the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, which illustrates rather than imposes stepping stones for a child to progress from the age of three to the end of the foundation stage.

5. We recognise that the scale of the challenge in the Guidance to practitioners, who will need to have imagination and flexibility to enable children to learn in ways appropriate to their developmental stage.

6. We recommend that training to assist practitioners to enhance children's personal, social and emotional development should be supported by the DfEE.

7. We recommend that innovative practice in ways to foster children's personal, social and emotional development should be disseminated widely through the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships.

77  First Report from the Education Committee, Session 1994-95, Educational Provision for the Under Fives, HC 74, paragraph 6. In its 1994 Report, the Education Committee re-iterated the recommendations made in the First Report from the Education, Science and Arts Committee, Session 1988-89, Educational Provision for the Under Fives, HC 30 and the relevant parts of the Third Report from the Education, Science and Arts Committee, Session 1985-86, Achievement in Primary Schools, HC 40. Back

78  DfEE Education Statistics-provisional figures for January 2000. Back

79  See review of evidence by Ms Eva Lloyd of the National Early Years Network, Ev. p. 129-130; and Dr Gillian Pugh, Ev. p. 3 para. 17; Ms Julie Fisher, Ev. p. 33 paras. 5.1-5.2; Mrs Rosemary Roberts, Ev. p. 41; Early Education, Ev. p. 57 paras. 5.1,5.6; TACTYC, Ev. p. 89; Local Authority Early Years Co-ordinators Network, Q. 259; National Early Years Network, Ev. p. 121; Ms Lesley Staggs (QCA), Q. 294. Back

80  Ev. p. 13 para. 3.2. Back

81  Ev. p. 13 para. 3.2. Back

82  Ev. p. 13 para. 33; QQ. 30, 42-3, 45-6. Back

83  Appendix 36 para. 3.6. viii. Back

84  Q. 470. Back

85  Q. 470; see also Early Years Curriculum Group, Ev. p. 33 para. 5.1. Back

86  See footnote 12 above. The existing statutory age was supported by NUT, Appendix 10 paras. 44-47; UK Reading Association, Appendix 11para. 14 and NASUWT, Appendix 27. For a contrary view, that the statutory age should be raised to six years, see Appendix 5 from Dr Sula Wolff. The Children's Society Appendix 12 para. 2.1 and TACTYC Ev. p. 89 para. 5.1 also called for the statutory school age to begin at six. Back

87  Ev. p. 54 para. 1.19. Back

88  TACTYC 'Training, Advancement and Co-operation in Teaching Young Children'. Back

89  Ev. p. 88 para. 4.5. Back

90  Ev. p. 140 para. 11. An independent evaluation of accredited baseline assessment schemes 1999-2000 was commissioned by QCA and carried out by Professor Geoff Lindsay, Emma Philips and Dr Ann Lewis of the Centre for Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR) of the University of Warwick. Back

91  Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 1999. Back

92  QCA Ev. p. 139, para. 5. Back

93  QCA, 2000. Back

94  QCA Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, 2000, page 20. Back

95  Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Melhuish, E., Siraj-Blatchford, I., Taggart, B., Evans, E., Dobson, A., Jeavons, M., Lewis, K., Morahan, M. and Sadler, S. (1999) Characteristics of the Centres in the EPPE Sample: Observational Profiles, Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project, DfEE and Institute of Education, University of London. Back

96  Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, Technical Paper 6a, Characteristics of Pre-school Environments, DfEE and Institute of Education, University of London, 1999, page 8 figure 4. Back

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