“They are so young!” I kept thinking to myself when I finally started teaching my own Year 1 class. Children in England start school after they turn five. By law children need to be in education by the September after their fifth birthday although many children enter the reception class already at the age of four. The current school starting age was introduced in the 1870 Elementary Education Act and made compulsory in 1880. So starting school at five is the norm and has a long tradition for a Brit, but not so much for a Finn. We tend to take pride in the fact that in Finland children go to school only at the age of 7 and until then “children are let to be children”. At the same time Finland relies on a compulsory and professional pre-education system to lead the children to primary education at a later age. I still see a lot of value in the later school starting age, but in the past year I have started to see that just because children go to school at the age of five, it does not mean that they are not let to be children.
There are many things both in one’s personal standpoint and professional practice that one can change in regards to how to handle a five-year-old in a Year 1 classroom, while the law from 1870s seems a bit more substantial to change to. Of course, there are many educational thinkers and social movements (e.g. Save Childhood Movement) within England that try to make a change on a legal/parliamentary level. But I thought it might be easier to start whit my own perceptions and practice and really start thinking, how to teach a 5-year-old instead of getting stuck on the fact that they are indeed quite young.
It actually came as a bit of a surprise to me what a Year 1 child is expected to do at the end of the first year. In fact whenever I talk about this with a someone from Finland, they go “Oh, but it must be more playing than learning actual subjects then if they are so young”. And so you might be forgiven for thinking this, but after taking a closer look at the National Curriculum, the statutory requirements do actually set the bar a fair bit higher than just play. In the English curriculum the subjects are divided between core and foundation subjects. If we just look at the core subjects of English, Maths and Science the content is comprehensive and detailed. While this all is true, it still does allow the teacher to really dig deep into how things should be taught in Year 1 and I feel that that is exactly what I’ve had to learn to do.
In this past year in English lessons, I have read so many children’s books that I’ve lost the count. Reading stories is something that adults do with children no matter what age they start school, so in our English class we build a lot of the learning on that. Through reading and memorizing stories they learn not only the phonetics and spelling of the English language but also about story language, composition and grammar. Also in the past months I have drawn pictures of stories, sequenced pictures, drawn story maps and story mountains with silly looking cows and hens and taught the children so much through something that inherently should be part of a five-year-old child’s life. And I have to say that the Brits do really know how to write good children’s books.
Similarly, in Maths I have done so many additions and subtractions, even the basics of fractions with cubes and other objects on the classroom, that I do actually feel like I have been teaching 5-year-olds. And to my relief, they also have learned. By doing things on the practical and pictorial level repeatedly with all the areas in the Maths curriculum, we do our best to ensure that when a child needs to perform the same mathematical calculation in Year 5 on the abstract level, the child has the tools to do that. It is the foundation that we lay for a five-year-old that enables them to work out a more abstract calculation because the child has had the journey through the practical- pictorial- abstract mental process. The Year 1 presents us with the once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure that the foundations of learning are at place and I think that’s how one should teach a five-year-old and for that they are not too young.
While I still personally believe that children are too young to start Year 1 at the age of five I have adjusted and accepted the realities of how things are here and have been since 1870. It doesn’t mean that I still wouldn’t write to my local MP and let him know my viewpoint. But it does mean that I have moved away from been terrified of their age and started thinking about how they should learn the things that we are expected to teach them. And I am hoping that in that way we can give these children a good foundation for their education and life in general.