Children in England will be required to cover subjects up to two years earlier than their peers in top-performing nations, a study suggests.
Education Secretary Michael Gove uses international comparisons to justify plans to bring forward topics such as fractions and decimals in maths, But some academics say “cramming” children with complex concepts “too soon” will not raise standards.
The government says it makes no apology for having high expectations of pupils.
Prof Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University compared the government’s new national curriculum plans to be introduced in primary schools from 2014 with the requirements for study in top European performer, Finland, and high-ranking Singapore. His work reveals many examples of basic mathematical knowledge being taught a year, some times two years later there than in England.
He highlights how Finnish children do not begin to study simple fractions, such as halves and quarters, until they are at least seven.
In England, under Mr Gove’s plans, they will start looking at fractions at age five or six, and will be required to use them in calculations at the age of seven. Calculating with fractions begins around the age of nine in Finland.
In fact, Finnish children do not start formal school until they are seven years old, and instead remain in play-based pre-schools or “kindergartens” until that age, as in many other European countries.
Similarly, English children will be required to start learning about decimals in Year 3 (seven- and eight-year-olds), two years earlier than in Finland or Singapore.
Expectations are also much higher in science here than in Singapore and Finland. In Singapore children do not begin science before they reach the age of England’s Year 4 children.
By this time English children are expected to cover 20 densely-packed pages listing scientific knowledge. In Finland science starts at age seven, and until age 11 is taught within a child-friendly environmental and natural studies curriculum.
Prof Wrigley said: “By contrast with Finland and Singapore, England’s revised national curriculum is a box full of hurdles.
“It sets up the majority of children to fail. The curriculum documents for Finland and Singapore make no demands for eight-year-olds to count in sevens and nines, or for the learning of long lists of spellings which exceed the range of children’s active vocabulary.”
He added: “They know that children in these high achieving countries are not pushed into formal education at the same time as ours. So clearly making them study things earlier is not the way forward.”
“These countries do not achieve high standards by cramming young children. This is the Pied Piper curriculum: it abolishes childhood.”
The Department for Education said in a statement: “We make no apologies for having high expectations for our children. We believe they can achieve more and will not stand by and allow pupils to lose ground with their peers in countries across the world.
“This curriculum is based on years of careful analysis of what is being taught in the world’s most successful school systems.
“It has been deliberately designed to ensure England has the most creative and best educated young people of any nation and, along with the best generation of teachers this country has ever had, will ensure all children can get on and succeed in the modern world.”
A spokesman added: “Suggesting that the new curriculum will ‘abolish childhood’ is silly to the point of absurdity and should not be taken seriously by anyone.”
He added that it had set expectations higher than other nations because officials believe children are able to be taught these concepts, and that it had worked with a group of experts led by Lynne McClure of the University of Cambridge to ensure that the expectations set out in the programmes of study in mathematics were appropriate as well as challenging for pupils from Year 1 onwards.
I’ve said this before, cramming concepts that are above the level of the children’s capability and understanding will not make learning improve, or enjoyable for teacher and children. It will completely turn most children to fail and who knows what will happen to the teenagers who move on to secondary school. This ‘years of careful analysis’ clearly hasn’t taken into account the age of the children learning these concepts. How on earth are 5 year old children going to learn the same concepts as a 7 year child? I’ve taught in a class of Year 1 children in a deprived area and, maybe with the exception of 1 child who was higher ability, I can’t imagine any of that class being able to learn a concept 1 year above their age, let alone 2, meaning that under this new curriculum they be labelled as ‘slow progress’ or ‘underachieving’. Is this what the government is looking for? It certainly is not what I would want for my children. I agree with Professor Wrigley on this. The other question that I would like to ask both the government and these so-called ‘experts’ is ‘When are we going to see a publication of the work and group discussions between both parties that lead to these conclusions?’ because I would love to have some idea of how these absurd results came about.