What age should children start formal education?

In a recent letter to The Times, Jo Webbern, Head of Bedales Pre-Prep, Dunannie, outlined her views on the recent national debate regarding what age children should start formal education.

“The Safeguard Childhood Movement campaign to delay primary school entry until age 7 (12 Sep) is not an accurate reflection of the existing Early Years curriculum approach. Learning through play is very much the cornerstone of the curriculum at my school and is crucial in putting the building blocks in place to enable young minds to begin thinking creatively, encouraging independent learners with enquiring minds and a love of learning. This is fostered as soon as the children begin at nursery from the age of two years and nine months and continues throughout their education at pre-prep.

Throughout the school day children in our Reception class are given opportunities to learn skills that will prove valuable in later-life. For example, the recent wet weather has seen the children enjoying the story of the book ‘Alfie’s Feet’, wearing waterproofs to measure puddles and explore the storyline. In another lesson, the children debate whether Goldilocks should be arrested for breaking and entering, an example of early philosophical thought.

Observing how the children problem-solve in play, helps teachers with their lesson-planning to build on the children’s ideas and further develop their thinking. It is also an ideal way of informally measuring progress. Problem-solving will prove invaluable in higher education and employability.

While I do agree that children should enjoy childhood and play for as long as possible, I would argue with the criticism that we are doing too much too soon. These are some of the comments I receive from our six and seven year olds when asked ‘what do you like doing most at school’: ‘I like Maths it’s kind of fun’; ‘English as I like poems, ‘History because you learn about the olden days’ and one child simply said ‘everything’. I wonder if school would have still been this enjoyable if they had only just started?”

Jo Webbern

By Jo Webbern, Head Bedales Pre-Prep, Dunannie


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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