7 myths about the advantages of starting school at 4 years old

Children in the UK start school in the September of the year in which they turn 5. Most children, except those with a very early September birthdate, will be just 4 years old. The legal requirement is actually to begin education in the term after their 5th birthday so most children now start school a year early.

Getting a place at a school of your choice is a competitive business. It is a high risk not to take up a place even though your child could stay at nursery until they are 5. The DfE makes a distinction between Year R which is part of the Early Years Foundation Stage and Year 1 which is when the National Curriculum begins at Key Stage 1. You would hope that the transition to school from nursery would be smooth as the Reception Year is a continuation of the Early Years Foundation Stage. It is a change of place but should be offering a broadly similar experience.  However in practice this is not what is happening and the push to introduce literacy and maths through teacher led instruction rather than play based learning is gaining momentum in schools.

The Summerborn campaign articulates concern at this shift in emphasis for young learners. Summerborn campaigners are parents who know that school is not what their child needs now. Early years groups and nurseries have better staffing levels and more flexible play based learning that suits their child. They have also seen the evidence that not only are summerborn children 90% more likely to be designated as having SEN but this label tends to stick around and lower expectations rather than lead to effective support. I wholeheartedly support these parents in taking a stand but I think it is not only the youngest children who are disadvantaged by this early start in school. The problems in education go beyond this.

Here in the UK we make the assumption that starting school at 4 years old is a good thing and that children will benefit. How true is this? Here are some myths that need to be dispelled.

Myth 1: Starting school is the beginning of education.

Early Years provision is now widespread and all children have an entitlement to 15 hours free provision. The two largest political parties’ manifestos plan to increase entitlement to 25 and 30 hours. If this does happen, children can be in developmentally appropriate education up to the age of 5 without going into school early. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.  What they offer is a more generous staffing level and a curriculum that works with the child’s needs rather than setting unrealistic goals. School is not the only way to learn.

Myth 2: Education is what happens when teachers teach

Education has become synonymous with teaching but teaching doesn’t guarantee effective learning. Young children need a wide experience to build their skills and don’t work well in groups. Direct teaching of a whole class is rare with young children because the focused attention and self-regulation required is a challenge for the young learner. Carpet time is a challenge with lots of fidgeting and wriggling which indicates a child is struggling to remain focused. When teacher do introduce earlier formal teaching especially of literacy and maths there is a risk it will back fire creating frustration, anxiety and disruption. I’ve met so many little ones over the years where their teachers assumed a behaviour problem or learning need was behind their slow progress and were looking to Educational Psychology expertise to confirm their view. For many young children creating more flexibility and supporting the child to succeed was often the only change required. Not being able to sit quietly on the carpet should be a clue for the teacher to do things differently.

Myth 3: The UK’s early school start gives us an international advantage

Doing things earlier to get ahead is another widespread myth in education. Most countries do not have children start school before 6 or 7 years. Before they start school children attend kindergarten or nursery where the emphasis is on providing children with the right environment for healthy, happy development. When children get to school later with good communication and social skills they make rapid progress. So rather than British children heading international league tables in literacy and maths we lag well behind. The PISA results which explore the attainments of 15 year olds around the world put the UK at 23rd for literacy and 26th for maths. Something is not going well and starting formal learning before many children are developmentally ready is not the answer.

Myth 4: Children learn best when they work in teacher led groups.

The lag in attainment for British students has been explained by some commentators as due to a lack of rigorous focus on building children’s knowledge. They criticise allowing children too much time for discovery learning and play. The traditionalists call this child centred learning which they deride as a scourge of modern times. They assume that if academic rigour could start early it would raise the attainments of 3 and 4 year olds. Politicians keen to make childcare reforms seized on this to justify creating larger adult led groups which would cut staff ratios and reduce costs. Neither parents nor early year’s practitioners were impressed and this idea now seems to have been dropped.

Myth 5: Play is not essential

Play has made human beings the clever, adaptable and inventive people we are.  Education is the new kid on the block – universal education is less than 150 years old. The drive to play pre-dates education by a mile, it has an evolutionary purpose which ensures young children and animals engage productively in experiences which offer maximum potential for learning and growth. Just imagine if a child had to learn everything they need to know in the first 5 years of life by being directly taught. Think of the 1000s of hours adults would have to dedicate to bringing up their children. Instead children are primed to play and imitate what they see around them incorporating things into fun and games until they have had sufficient practice. It is so clever but so subtle we risk taking play for granted and seeing it as unimportant. It is a serious mistake to cut the time available for play short before children have finished developing all the skills they need to benefit from what is on offer in the classroom. As a result we have children in school too early to benefit from what is on offer.

Myth 6: Parents are to blame when children don’t succeed 

A child’s pace of development can be affected by many things including family environment and their own natural ability. However while some families may need support to offer their child the best start it can also be the timing of starting in school which is the issue. Last October I offered an on line advice day via NetMums for parents with concerns about their child’s start at school. We were kept busy all day by deeply worried parents. The greatest concern was anxiety, children who had thrived at Nursery but no longer felt confident and secure. Many were overwhelmed, worried about the skills required of them and lost without the additional support that had been available at better staffed nurseries. These articulate, concerned and capable parents were deeply unhappy that their child was having a hard time. There was no advanced warning as almost all said nursery had gone well. Despite this evidence that the partnership between nurseries and parents pays dividends schools are still too ready to blame parents.

Myth 7: Teachers don’t need training in child development

Early Years Practitioners who lead our nurseries and early year’s settings have a thorough understanding of child development. This knowledge allows them to see where the child is up to in acquiring skills and knowledge and to anticipate next steps which will support and enrich their learning. They know when to help a child accelerate their knowledge and when to slow down. They don’t make the mistake of jumping too far ahead and missing out a vital stage of development. Ironically they are paid less than a primary trained teacher. Teachers in primary schools are likely to meet children who have unfinished developmental business, either because they have SEND or because at 4 years old there is still lots to pull together and coordinate before the steep learning curve of early development begins to level off. If schools are to continue to take in 4 year olds they need to ensure that each teacher has the knowledge and skills they need to help children learn in the best way possible for them.

I am an optimist. I think things will improve but only when the message is widely shared that school is not always the best place for a 4 year old to spend their precious time.


About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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4 Responses to 7 myths about the advantages of starting school at 4 years old

  1. Di Grey says:

    Starting school early for my son has caused huge amount of harm. He was bullied by his teacher – regularly humiliated in front of the class and once, the whole school. I didn’ t find out until he was 14. I took him to a hypnotherapist who taught him EFT to help him control his emotions as he was a keen golfer but cried and beat himself up of things went badly. He told us the whole thing that had been haunting him. He always felt undeserving and feared failure because of the fear instilled in a 4/5 year old.
    He is now 23 and suffers from depression and anxiety. He has therapy and medication. His mental health, I realise in hindsight, has affected his relationship with his family and friends.
    I firmly believe that starting school so early for many children is damaging in ways that manifests later in their lives. Even without bullying it can damage self esteem as children know their place very early on after starting school – who is cleverest -Who is sporty etc. They are far too young to deal with those emotions and can play on their minds, unspoken for all their lives. Why is there such a big mental health problem? We treat children as bums on seats in a factory system where each child represents a pot of money and, if they are bright they are an asset to get more bright bums on seats and if they are average they are invisable.
    I can’t think of a way it can change. Women go to work and need childcare. We trust schools with most of our child’s time. I would love to see a change to the starting age to 6 or 7 but with our economy needing both parents to work I can’t see a solution and our mental health epidemic will go on. No I don’t blame social media. It doesn’t help but I feel the education system has a bigger role.
    Well that got that off my chest on this Mother’s day. Thanks for the article.

    • hooperj says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your son’s experience. EFT helps a lot of people especially as it encourages you to think positively to manage anxiety. I agree that parents need to work but I think schools should be more play friendly and less pressurizing. Children in nurseries are much more relaxed and keen to learn through playful approaches. We need to transform our expectations of under 7s to build their confidence and ensure they continue to find learning absorbing and worthwhile.

  2. Yildirim says:


    I have just read your article for the first time. We are moving back to the UK from overseas and our daughter will be 4 just before September. We are in two minds whether to send her to the Reception year or to Nursery. She is quite energetic actually did one year of 9am until 4pm at age 3 at an English speaking Canadian Nursery, but it was all fun and games. We are confident she can handle the hours but we are not confident that the teachers are equipped to appreciate she is still only 4 years old and ultimately is driven by fun and games…

    A person from the local council told me that reception year is more like “nursery with some eduction added into it” that will enable children to have a smoother transition into the first year of primary school, but after reading your article I am not so convinced.

    2 years has passed since you wrote this article , do you feel that there has been some development / improvement or are things more or less the same as they were in the year 2015?

    • hooperj says:

      The reception year is part of early years provision which links them to pre school but not all reception classes have the same staffing levels or ethos. Do visit local schools to find out about class sizes and numbers of staff. Many Reception classes do their best to provide a child friendly start to school but pressures to get results in literacy and maths can make this difficult. I do think there has been progress, driven from within the early years sector which has become more confident in asserting the rights of small children to have a developmentally appropriate start to learning. Look at school websites and also ask any parents you meet. Good luck for your new life in the UK

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