We start formal education too young, he  and other experts claim


Dr Richard House of Roehampton University says that the UK has, according to UNICEF, the lowest levels of childhood well-being in the developed world, and some of the highest levels of teenage disaffection and distress. So it’s not surprising there’s fierce debate in the UK about what constitutes good early years practice and care. A book edited by him and published in 2011 ‘Too Much too Young’  provides a collection of essays by childhood experts from around the world who believe that our tendency to over-focus on cognitive development (at the expense of social, emotional and physical development) is the main reason things have gone wrong in the past. At the moment, most English children start school in nursery or reception classes at the age of three or four and are taught using the Early Years Foundation Stage – a compulsory “nappy curriculum”. They then move into formal lessons at the age of five. How young is too young to start your child’s formal education? In France, Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden Finland) and Russia, children don’t start formal education until they are 7. Finnish pupils start formal education at seven, and when they start school they spend less time in the classroom than most  and then enjoy 11-week summer holidays – and they end up with the highest educational standards in Europe. Apart from the Netherlands and Malta, the only other education systems beginning at five are Scotland and Wales (with Northern Ireland even earlier at four). Our education system does not compare well with   many of those countries who start educating their children much later than we do. There is no evidence that I can find that suggests that the earlier you start  formal education , the  better the  educational outcomes for the child. (Nor does there appear to be a clear link between  more  time spent in the classroom   equals better outcomes)

Dr House believes that when it comes to our youngest children there is too much too soon, with too little genuine play and too much assessment, and that this eroded childhood. The overwhelming conclusion of the book is that the ‘schoolification’ of early years in England has not improved most children’s chances of success in the educational system, and may be doing long-term damage. What  Dr House and some other experts want including such heavyweights as Professor Susan Greenfield, Penelope Leach , and Camilla  Batmanghelidjh (Kids company)   is  the establishment of a genuinely play-based curriculum in nurseries and primary schools up to the age of six, free from the downward pressure of formal learning, tests and targets.  They share a concern  too that our  children are subjected to increasing commercial pressures, and that  they begin formal education far earlier than the European norm ,spending  ever-more time indoors with screen-based technology, rather than in active outdoor activity and play.

Much of the discussion in the book centres on the role of children’s play in early learning – and how far adults should intervene and direct that play. Although there is now widespread agreement that young children’s self-directed play springs from their essential human learning drive, and is vital for every aspect of development and well-being,  House claims that adults without a background in early years tend to see it as mere ‘messing about’ and to look for ways of making it more ‘educational’. The constant refrain of contributors to Too Much Too Soon is that such attempts to accelerate or force development inevitably backfire. Dr House, has presented  his most recent  findings this week  at a major conference in central London .He quoted, according to the Telegraph,  a major US study – carried out over eight decades – that showed children’s “run-away intellect” actually benefited from being slowed down in the early years, allowing them to develop naturally. Many bright children can grow up in an “intellectually unbalanced way”, suffering lifelong negative health effects and even premature death, after being pushed into formal schooling too quickly, he said. when he called on the Government to launch an independent inquiry into England’s school starting age. He said: “The conventional wisdom is that naturally intelligent children should have their intellect fed and stimulated at a young age, so they are not held back.“Yet these new empirical findings strongly suggest that exactly the opposite may well be the case, and that young children’s run-away intellect actually needs to be slowed down in the early years if they are not to risk growing up in an intellectually unbalanced way, with possible life-long negative health effects.”

Earlier this year, a coalition of 50 leading academics, authors and childcare organisations launched a campaign group – Early Childhood Action – to push for an alternative curriculum focused almost entirely on a play-based approach.

Note: Dr  Richard House lectures in psychotherapy at the University of Roehampton. He was a founder of the Open EYE campaign, challenging the statutory nature of EYFS.



  1. I think there also needs to be some parental soul searching in the UK about why children are pushed into nurseries so young. I had the very disturbing experience some years ago of travelling by crowded commuter train from my local station at about 8am one morning. The station has a nursery right next door and I found myself standing next to about four young mothers who had all obviously dropped their pre school kids off at the nursery. They spent the entire journey into Waterloo discussing their kids, to the point where I was sorely tempted to say, “Why don’t you just go back, pick them up and take them home to be with their mothers…. which is the best place for them?”

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