I heard an interesting comment on the radio this morning. The discussion was regarding children missing school and whether they necessarily miss anything important. The caller made the point that if we have the belief that real learning happens in school it follows that learning doesn’t happen out of school and children are missing out.

Furthermore, if we buy into this belief, then surely the earlier our kids are in full time education the better?

I have a few thoughts on this, both as a teacher and a parent.

When I started primary school there were 3 times at which you started depending on your birthday.  You started the term after your 5th birthday. I was 5 in July and started school the following September meaning that I only had 2 years in Infant School/KS1. Eventually there was a feeling that summer babies missed out on having time in Reception class and the entry times to school changed. If your birthday was between 1st September to 28th February you started in September and 1st March to 31st August you started in January. Currently, in most areas, all children start in September. Compared to my KS1 education children that are 5 at the beginning of the school year get an extra term in school but children at the end of the year get an extra 12 months.

You may be interested to know that legally your child still does not have to be in school until the term after their 5th birthday.

My son was 5 in the first week of the autumn term whilst some children are not 5 until the whole of Reception year is done. I was glad he was an older one. I never felt that he was “more than ready” to leave Nursery. He was just fine where he was.

My daughter has a January birthday and so should have started school in the September before her fifth birthday. She was very happy at Nursery and I had a gut feeling she wasn’t ready to start school so I kept her there until the January of her fifth birthday. In actual fact she probably could have done with staying in a less formal learning environment for a while longer. Emotionally she was not ready for school uniform, lining up, putting her hand up, eating with 600 other children, the long days, the relentlessness of the school term. When I was a reception class teacher there were children in my class who I know now were not coping. Some would fall asleep during the afternoon, cry when they left their mums, fall off their chairs, be aggressive towards other children.

There’s a dilemma for parents; putting your child into school and buying into the message that the earlier they start formal learning the better, even though they may be unhappy and anxious, or home school where they may be happier but you risk that they may not learn well enough.

Is that your choice?

Or is there a way for the situations to meet as a good compromise?

My thoughts on what you can do:

My belief is that children in the UK start formal education far too early. There are alternatives out there if you want an alternative to state education, but that’s not for everyone and I didn’t go down that route. State education is the route most parents will take and so most children will start their Reception year before they are 5.

Let me reassure you, it’s not an inevitable disaster and most children cope perfectly well.

The very first thing you should do is to consider what you are expecting from school and from your child. In the initial days and weeks you shouldn’t really see much change from what’s happened in the Nursery setting. There should be lots of play, both indoors and outdoors, lots of choosing of tasks, lots of equipment to help them with new tasks and not too much sitting.

Your child may start to bring homework home. This in itself is not a bad thing but it depends what is being asked of them. Your child is likely to be very tired so even to read after school can be quite a task. Never have a battle over homework with your Reception age child. Homework at this stage is not compulsory. Don’t be anxious about what the teacher will think if you don’t get the homework done. Just write a quick note. Battles at this early age over homework will just encourage a negative attitude to learning. If your child is very resistant to homework and you’d like them to do some of it, make it into something fun or exciting which will help to develop a much more positive approach.

Some children love school and others don’t. It’s the same for all of us in all areas of life. Be sensitive to their feelings and thoughts on school. They probably won’t be articulate enough to be able to explain fully to you what is upsetting them or boring them. Just acknowledge how they feel. The school day is very long for little children so try to avoid going over what’s happened in the day. I know-you’re just being interested! I know myself though, that if I’ve had a bad day I don’t really want to keep going over it. I prefer to move onto something I love doing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean brush over things or ignore them. Take your child’s lead.

How was school for you?

I loved school and so have a very positive view of the school environment and learning. My brother did not have a great experience of school. He has acknowledged that when his son is having a tough time he finds it very difficult to speak to a teacher because his own feelings then become raw again and it’s almost impossible to separate the two. If this is you, be aware that you may pass on those feelings of anxiety early on. Try journaling your feelings until they have less power over you and take another adult with you when you go into school.

Our media currently is full of stories of poverty, unemployment, gangs and general teen unruliness. For a lot of people this leads onto pushing their children so that they get a headstart in qualifications and therefore further education and employment. This may be appropriate in the teenage years but it is not in early education.

The reason why is that young children need to experience learning fully without much adult intervention. They need to learn emotional skills and resilience at this age. By trying things out on their own they learn about their own capabilities and their ability to persevere. This is a much healthier way to learn and much more appropriate to their stage of development and hence less stressful. Once they have learnt about themselves as a learner they will be much better prepared for the tougher academic learning of the teen years.

In conclusion, you don’t need to prepare your child for big school at all!

All you need to do is be with them and enjoy life with them. I heard on the radio today that the average mother spends one hour per day with their child, fathers 34 minutes, while teens spend an average of nine hours per day on social media.

I realise that it’s not always as easy as it sounds to spend lots of time with your child, so we all need to make the most of the time we do have. I tried my hardest to always be home for dinner and bedtime. I was lucky that when my children were young we did not all have mobile phones but we did have TV. At dinner time we all sat at the table without the TV and spoke to each other. Some of the time my children argued but that’s all part of learning to be a person. It’s been said many times, but make sure your phone is away when you are around your children. I read in a report many years ago, and this may surprise you, that the thing teens want most from their parents is attention. Start that full attention as early as you can.

If you can, take and collect your child to and from school yourself. Little children will often tell you things I those few minutes.

A really important time is bedtime. Troubles and worries often surface at this time because children are tired and their guard is dropping. A story and a cuddle is a very reassuring time for them and helps them to root themselves to you and the family.

More than anything else don’t worry. Stay close to your child and you will notice any changes in them as they happen.