Questions of a similar nature have been agonised over through the ions of history; questions whereby the answer leads one way or the other to two different routes, each with their unknown pathways and destinations.
And yet this particular question need not exist. It exists as parents, and some staff, grapple with the enormity of ‘sending’ very young, often very immature, children to school – that is school defined in the eyes of much of the populace as “Big School” with its attendant structure, uniform, and three Rs. In many, if not most, cases the definition is built upon first hand experience of several decades ago…and sadly it is not unheard of still to witness small, energetic children being admonished with ‘just wait till you get to big school….’ No, the question need not arise if ‘Early Years’ was merged into one, as indeed Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence acknowledges with its levels. …’early’ spanning age three through Primary one, and first level from P2 and beyond. If we operated a kindergarten system much of the inevitable formality would be alleviated, transition would be eased and, most importantly, children would be enabled to learn at their appropriate developmental stage in a relevant manner.
I am delighted to see the expansion of what is often referred to as ‘play- based learning’ in primary one and two classes, and there are many dedicated, qualified, conscientious teachers and practitioners chipping away at past regimes to achieve this for children. I welcome this – what I prefer to think of as a more active and creative living and learning base for children – and fervently hope that funding and training support its growth.
But we are not there yet…at least not universally, so the question remains ‘to defer or not to defer?’
My answer is unequivocally ‘yes’ – but to state that without giving reason is perhaps not fair, so here is why I think it so vitally important. In an early years setting or nursery school the ratio of adult to child is better than in school which immediately means there is a greater chance of your child being spoken with and played with in adult company – therefore enhancing their communication and social skills. Early years have environments laid out to encourage movement from children, provoke curiosity and support individual interests and maturation stages. Timetables and strict curriculums do not exist and children can be immersed in continuous exploration experiencing a multitude of scenarios and developing skills that they will carry with them into their later years. – skills such as independence, confidence, being organised and understanding their contribution is as important as the next person’s.
A quality early years setting will spend at least as much time outside as it does inside, letting children see the workings of their world as they play physically, in role, and with imagination. Outings can be spontaneous, literacy and numeracy fostered in day to day life, and little people nurtured as unique and valued. To date schools seem unable to overcome the practicalities of such an approach.
In the same vein that parents may concern themselves that a friend’s child may sleep all night, sit up, eat, walk, and talk before their own so they gradually accept that children do get there in their own time. So it is with social and cognitive maturation. Some children are very physical and may yield paintbrushes, chalks and pencils with skill – or not – as the case may be; some will listen well to stories and poems perhaps memorising and reciting in full while others cannot sit still for 30 seconds. Some children will separate happily from parent or carer, others weep long into a morning until they feel loved and secure in a new environment. But you know what? They almost always get there in the end!
So if you have a child where your instinct is to defer, then do so…..an extra year in an early years setting makes a huge difference, and you will have a child better able to meet the challenges and fun of the next step of their education.
If you are interested in further reading around this subject Upstart Scotland has collated various articles evidencing educational and neuro-scientific research as to why it is important to get it right. If you wish to learn more about the principles upon which quality early years practice is founded read about Friedrich Froebel – credited with being the ‘Father of Kindergarten’ and whose beliefs and approach still stand strong today. If you need first hand reassurance about the value of deferral I am Head of a kindergarten and have lost count of the many children whom I have deferred and had the privilege of watching the resulting positive outcomes. I am also a mother who wishes she had had the opportunity to defer a December born son, and lastly I am a grandmother with two out of three grandchildren (in Scotland) who deferred and benefited enormously from doing so…the third had a March birthday!
So, for any parent asking the question ‘To defer or not to defer’, my answer is always DEFER!
By Alison Hawkins, Headteacher, Wester Coates Nursery School
(if quoting from this blog, please ensure 100% accuracy and attribute the author)