Mummy stuff

Too cool for school

Free spirit. Wild hair.

Free spirit. Wild hair.

As a foreigner, you can either dwell on things that are worse in your host country than at home and become a grumpy old lady in the process. Or you can embrace differences, sometimes just accepting them as they are, getting used to them over time. Like left hand traffic. There are, however, certain things you will be unable to accept, no matter how long you have lived away from home, and no matter how hard you try. Like sending your kid to school aged four.

Naively, I had believed I would get used to the fact that come September, my little girl would don a uniform, had her hair pulled back with a brown (!) ribbon, and would spend most of her day sitting down in a tiny classroom, learning how to read and write at an early age. Turns out I didn’t.

We went for an introduction day at her new school last Friday. And while I appreciate the fact that starting your kid at big school is a daunting prospect for a lot of parents, the nagging feeling in my stomach weighed too heavy to push it into the ‘we’ll get used to it’ drawer. By the time we left the school, I had made up my mind: there was no way Lil L’ would start at that school in September. In fact, there is no way she is going to start in the English primary school system at all.

My issues with the system are multi-faceted. There is evidence that starting brighter children at big school as young as four years can have damaging effects on them.

There is also evidence that older children do better than their younger peers.

This becomes even more apparent if you have a look at the international school report PISA that compares results across countries. Only one of the top ten countries send their children to school before they are six. And in Sweden, Estonia and Finland, children start school at age seven! Finland, which has come out top of the list for several years, also has the fewest overall school hours to be spent in a classroom.

While it seems superficial at first, I also can’t get my head around the whole uniform idea. Prohibiting nail varnish, jewellery or makeup, dictating hairstyles and banning adornments on school bags do not make for better school results. There is no evidence whatsoever that they create a sense of unity or belonging either. The way you dress is part of how you express yourself. Taking it away from you is a punishment which is used for prisoners.

A world full of wonders

A world full of wonders

My daughter is extremely bright. She has bounds of energy and can hardly contain herself not to run everywhere. She loves imaginative play, she loves to dance, she loves to paint, snip and stick. She speaks 2 ½ languages. This morning we had a conversation about how memory sticks work. Yesterday it was the Internet and the day before we talked about electrostatic energy.

There is so much more to learn about the world than how to write CAT, MAT or HAT. At least when you are four years old. I don’t want her creativity to be killed off. I don’t want her free spirit to be crushed. I don’t want her to be imprisoned in a tiny, almost windowless classroom, bound to a chair for most of the day, stuck in a uniform with her hair tied back.

While I see that pressing her into the Early Years Foundation Stage framework would prime her nicely for a career in a Plexiglas cubicle somewhere in the grey world of Canary Wharf, I can’t honestly agree on it being appropriate for a four-year-old. In fact, I don’t think anyone should live like that, kid or not.

So. She is not going. Of course, I am feeling a little wobbly to make such a big decision, especially as everyone around us just seems to get on with it. But only because everybody does it, it doesn’t make it right.

The alternatives? Swedish school (another two years of play and LOTS of outdoors activities), German school (same) or French school (another year and a half before writing or reading are in order). Legally, I don’t have to send her to school until the school year commencing after her fifth birthday. And while schools aren’t too happy for you to defer a place or demand half days for your child in reception, there is nothing they can do about it if that’s your wish. Food for thought?


  1. With the exception of school uniform – I like that it keeps things simple in the mornings! – I totally agree with your thoughts on school. My daughter is 3 and at a Montessori nursery school. I am weighing up which route to take for her re primary schooling. The Early Years Foundation Stage – and in fact state school curriculums in general – seem very much geared to creating automatons ready to go out into the workforce. Where’s the joy in learning? Where’s the space and time to be able to learn for the sheer wonderfulness of learning? I think it sounds like you’ve made a good decision for your daughter and good luck with plotting her educational path.

  2. Have you thought about looking at different schools? They’re not all the same. I have 2 kids in the State school system and I don’t recognise your description at all. My son spent most of Reception making junk models or in the school meadow. Not all schools have a uniform either, although my teen daughter likes hers because it means she doesn’t have to think about what to wear!

  3. This made for a very interesting read, and having thought that I had given enormous thought to my daughter’s choice of school come September, I now feel that you’ve gone way beyond! I think that it is a difficult and interesting balance – the need for a degree of structure without the stifling of creativity. Perhaps we do send our children off to school early here. But then I think it entirely depends on the type of school you choose. The local “dream” school we discovered was far too strict and restrictive for our daughter’s free spirit (and mine!), yet we have found somewhere that feels like it will foster her growth, questions and thirst for not only learning but being around lots of other children. You’re doing an amazing thing by making a choice that’s against the grain, and I absolutely believe that you have to go with what’s right or you and your child. Good food for thought.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Being a foreigner myself, I am totally with you on this one. I started school just before my 7th birthday and it hasn’t done me any harm. I think that 4 is way too young to start school and I will definitely wait until she is 5 . I am fluent in 3 languages and teaching my daughter the same. We also travel a lot, so I am sure that by the time she has to go to school legally, she will have a very strong foundation. There are definitely other ways to learn rather than being stuck in a classroom at such a young age. I know that some people haven’t got a choice to wait longer (due to work commitments and etc) but if you have – then I think it’s a great idea to wait.

  5. You have to make the right decision for you and your daughter – what you are comfortable with. I agree that kids start school far too early here but my eldest is now finishing his first year (Reception) and he is still 4 – not 5 till 26th August, so he will pretty much ALWAYS be the youngest in his year. This concerned me at first but it has made no difference to him and his development, he is excelling in everything and he LOVES it, he enjoys the challenge. We are not in any way pushy parents, I don’t encourage him to do extra homework or anything like that, in fact I am the opposite and I feel that parents get a little crazy over schooling and how their kids are doing (especially in and around London) – I just want him to be happy and have fun. I think it’s definitely been a positive experience for him starting school at 4. Every child is different, every school is different. I have a feeling it will be a very different story for my twins when they start (also August babies so will be young for their year) and we have been contemplating deffering a year. We will see. They are SO young and they should just be having fun and loving every day – whether this is at school or not. Sounds like you’ve made the right decision for your family – it’s always something you can look at again in 6 months, she is still a baby really and you shouldn’t feel pressure either way x

  6. Steph says

    Hmmm. I’m in two minds about this. And given it some thought as well. I’m comforted by the fact that EYFS at its best should be mainly play based. I must admit that I find a slight contradiction in the high usage of nursery from a young age (I’m included in this!) for such long hours, and the arguments against starting school at 4/5.

    I also grew up in England, was young in my year and honestly loved school- starting at 4. And althought there is attention paid to phonics, targets, writing, I think these are introduced and carried out in fun ways. Have a listen to the jolly phonics songs. My daughter loves them! And learning to read need not be more stressful than snuggling up with mum and reading a book together every night.

    The only thing i do know or definate however is that the London school system being as overcrowded as it is, trying to get back into a ‘desirable’ school after passing up an offer may not be easy. Which us why we are taking the place.

    Best of luck whatever you decide.

  7. Big M says

    These really are tough choices. I think child unfriendly London makes the choice only harder. Even private schools with their often so competitive parents seem to be worse than state schools in the early years.

    I could live with some grievances, but
    – starting at 4 years
    – too little being in the outdoors
    – days that are too long 9- 3.40
    – a curriculum that I too subject based and structured
    – school dress code that I too strict

    That is just no way to live! Well done MetMum for thinking outside the box.

  8. This makes me realise it won’t be long before I am making these decisions – eek! Despite starting school at 4 and being the youngest in my class, I was academically at the top end. But socially, I probably wasn’t ready and I think I felt a bit overwhelmed by going so young. Well done for standing your ground and I hope when the right time comes you will get a school that you’re all happy with.

  9. Meh Mum says

    Honey you’re looking at the wrong school if its windowless and doesn’t let the kids learn through play.
    Also, free child are.
    Just a thought.

  10. This was a great read, and my advice is to always trust your own instincts as you know your daughter the best. You are not obliged to follow the system, so being different makes you unique in your own way and as long as your daughter is learning and exploring through life that is what matters at the end. I also know from experience, that every system has its benefits and flaws (I can tell you more when we eventually meet :0), its just a matter to which one you feel more comfortable with x

  11. Ladycath says

    I enjoyed reading this today as my partner and I have also made this decision with our eldest.She is also four.It just seems so wrong to send them to school so young-agreed with all your reasons and Big Ms too .I actually teach this age group.It is so hard for them to have to sit at their desks for most of the day and such an unnatural thing for a child to do.We have made the decision to send her to Montessori school and as I am currently on maternity leave I will have lots of time to spend with her outdoors and hope to do lots of creative things too.We love the idea of the outdoor schools they have in Germany and Sweden.I don’t think they have any in Ireland yet but it’s certainly something I would like to look into for the future

  12. Hi Met Mum,

    I’m Finnnish, so to me it was very hard when my first born was asked to go to school at the age of four. But, I agree with many comments here about the schoool you’ve looked at, probably being the wrong one. Because, although children in Finland don’t start school until at the age of seven, most mothers return to work after about 18 months, and the child enters the state nursery school system.

    Here in the UK, I was lucky to be able to put my son (who is also very bright) into a private nursery school with a lot of play, which to me looked very similar to the Finnsh nursery schools. (Apart from the uniform, which he didn’t take much notice of). My son (who is now 26) went onto study Chemistry at Oxford and graduated with a double first MA three years ago. (Yes, I am stupidly proud of him).

    Having said all of the above, it’s very much horses for courses with schools, and the best advice anyone ever gave me, was to trust your instincts. It’s your child an only you will know what’s best for her.

    Good luck!


  13. Ruby will start school when she is 6 here in the US. She misses the cut-off date this year by 4 hours. I’m pleased (after much discussion and wondering). She will be older and able to deal with the structure and expectations of the US Kindergarten. She’ll continue with her 3 mornings at pre-school – lots of play, fun and social friendship building and continue to do amazingly well with preparing for the Big School world. Children are children only once – there will be years and years of studying, being asked to sit still and listen (little bodies are not designed to sit for long periods – why would they want to?). Good for you making your decision for your Little L – she will do fabulously well when time comes for school.

  14. Jennifer L says

    Hi there, I agree with some of the readers above and think that perhaps you are looking at the wrong schools? My daughter will start reception this year and her new state school has a lot of outdoor play, gardening, swimming etc as well as indoor creative play although they will still be learning phoenics etc. I’m not sure how much of this will be “work” as such as it’s very play based. She is currently in an amazing Montessori nursery so has pretty much been self led in what she wants to do – she has actually chosen to learn to read quite fluently already (no pushing or help from me at all) and her teachers have told me her favourite activities are arts and crafts, reading and doing math and verbal worksheets! And her idea of heaven is a school uniform! So I think it is all up to the individual child really. I know that if I was still in london and contemplating private, I’d take a look at more alternative education such as king Alfred’s in hampstead or there’s also a Montessori primary, but probably too far for you to travel from west london. Anyway, apologies for the long comment but good luck with your choice, whatever suits you and your family is the best decision you can make!

  15. I realised reading this how I’ve lucked out with the school – small, independent, half of 3 days spent on sports field, swimming on the 4th, PE at school on 5th, music lessons, gardening club, art club, etc. My oldest loves it so much he doesn’t want to hear us talking about moving back to Australia! My youngest will start in September (he turns 5 in nov) but I’m not stressed cause I know the first couple of years at that school are very much for playing.

    Look around for next year, you might be surprised at what you find 🙂

  16. I think you are doing what is right for you – stick with your gut feeling! I totally agree – all the evidence suggests Sweden and Finland are getting it right, while the UK are not. I had similar reservations about sending my boy at 4 (boys fair worse in the education system)
    I’m not sure if you were thinking of going private or state (appreciate state is London is a crazy lottery with few winners). State is definitely much less structured, than private which seems to go for a more ordered, seat based environment from the beginning.
    I wondered if he was ready but actually he was. My son has enjoyed school, mostly he plays, he chooses his own activities. It suits his levels of energy. They don’t have desks or chairs. He has loved learning to read and writing (it’s been a struggle to not get caught up in the competitive stuff around this – we have gone at his pace, no pushing or prompting). At the end of reception isn’t hasn’t been as bad as I imagined.

  17. Jigsawglue says

    My partner teaches EYFS in a state school. He is weighed down with the paperwork lol, but the children have lots of play and outside time. So, I think it is finding the right school, and even the right teacher.

    But I agree it is good to stop and think about what and why. And also WHO SAYS!!?? There is a lot of pressure to just get on, and stay on, the treadmill of what is ‘expected’. Bravo for getting off for a bit.

  18. It is all about finding the right school for the right child, isn’t it? Personally, I have a problem with schools assessing kids at 3 years old (give me a break, kids will be kids! ).
    That said, I know that some schools do a ballot instead of an assessment. I suspect that it is all about finding what works for you. Good luck and keep us posted!

  19. Oh well, we deferred out little guy for another year because I did not feel he was ready. We were given the choice because he was 4 in February past, so could go August 2013 or August 2014. He will be in nursery for another year, mornings only, and I couldn’t be happier. Only you two know what is best for your own daughter, and you are SO right, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should (FYI I viewed 6 nurseries before I left him in one lol).

  20. A really interesting post. My youngest has just turned 6 and my oldest is just leaving primary school. Funnily enough she is participating in a speaking competition this evening on whether children start school too young in the UK. I kept her back in nursery for 6 months as she went to a wonderful nursery and the practicality of the half days didn’t really work for us. Although the school weren’t particularly happy about it, I don’t think she has been disadvantaged and has left with a higher than expected level of attainment. I agree that they seem too young to be at school, that said I think many children are ready for school at 4 and for this not receiving so much stimulation at home perhaps it is a good time to go. The reception class at our school spend as much time as possible out doors and they do really enjoy themselves. I guess it does really depend on what is right for each child.

  21. Interesting intel here and in your links. Personally I never think it hurts to look around as from the little I’ve looked into it, it does seem state schools can vary widely in their approach. But I think it’s inspiring you have not taken a majority rules view and are going with your gut about what is best for Little L. Even in the US children don’t start school until a year later and it feels like a very early start here for children. Good luck.

  22. I blush to admit that my younger daughter started school at 3!! But that was in Brussels, where it was the norm as there are so many working mothers …. there was not a lot of emphasis on reading/writing until she started in the primary, age 6, by which time she had taught herself to read ….Very hard to know how to handle it when you have so many options, but definitely don’t send her anywhere unless YOU love it. Trust your instincts 🙂

  23. I found this a fascinating read and great food for thought. Being a Brit, born and bread, I have never really considered the age we will send our son to school, but your perspective is interesting and admirable. We have somehow fallen into a Montessori nursery too but I don’t think we will school there. It’s a private school. My issue is considering between private and state school and the benefits/disadvantages of both. There are so many options and it’s hard to decide what is best. Good luck with your education quest.

  24. says

    Hi, I have been working in primary schools as a teacher for the past 8 years and completely agree that our system favours the older (Autumn Born) children. I completely respect your decision not to place your daughter in school yet and know that she will continue to thrive. When she does have to start school make sure you participate as fully as you can in her education, and above all else do not let the system crush her creativity help her find ways to channel it

  25. Wendy says

    You raise some very interesting points. I would just say that, in the UK, you don’t have to send your child to school “the school year commencing after the fifth birthday”. You can send them at any age you like – or not at all. The legal obligation is to provide an education – that can be at school or not. I am not at all saying that you should home educate your child – just that the choice is entirely yours.

  26. Helena says

    This post has been at the back of my mind for 18 months… I am now looking at British curriculum schools for my daughter (we are expats living in the UAE) and I am worried by the thought of my child (any child) being sat, confined to a classroom or concrete playground for 5 hours a day… I hear talk of mums bribing their kids to learn their numbers using sweets so that they pass the FS1 entrance assessments for the “best” schools. The world has gone mad. What about childhood? What about learning through experiencing? What about life skills? What about nature?
    We have the added complexity of trying to get our daughter back into the UK school system when we come home so I am also worried about her being percieved to be behind her peers if we don’t follow the traditional path…

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