Seven’s the magic number: education a marathon not a sprint

Children should not be pushed to learn at an early age, claim experts

Child A is Danish. She was born in January 2007. When she starts her formal education (a year after starting school and graduating from the kindergarten class) in August 2014, she will be seven and a half years old.

Child B is British. He was born in August 2009. When he starts his formal education in September 2014, he will be barely five years old. 

As things currently stand, all Danish schoolchildren start their formal education in the year they turn seven – one or two years later than in most other countries – and then, presuming they pursue upper-secondary education, leave school later, in the year they turn either 19 or 20.

But according to most scholars and many politicians the current starting age is just right. 

“There are many valid reasons for maintaining this age for school-children,” contended Jan Mejding, an associate professor in the department of education at Aarhus University.
“They need to spend time on developing other competences and to learn about the world around them, before they begin reading about it.”


Report: Earlier start yields better results 

In the latest PISA test, Denmark was ranked number 22 – a placement that the politicians were not satisfied with. The PISA tests are completed in 65 OECD countries and test 15-year-old students in reading, writing, maths and science. 

At the very top of the tree were Shanghai-China, Singapore and Hong Kong-China, which are all countries where the children learn to read and write and do maths at a much younger age. Recent analysis from the think-tank Kraka claims that Danish children would be ranked much higher if they started their formal education one year earlier. But Mejding does not agree with the results of the analysis.  

“There is no correlation between the PISA results and at which age the children start school,” he said. “What matters is the quality of the teaching throughout the years.”

He states that an earlier start would especially pose problems for the boys since they are less mature than girls and thereby less ready to learn. 

“In a formal education, the girls learn faster at this age, which means that if we lowered the school age, more boys will encounter trouble.” 
He also adds that the Danish children seldom flunk a grade as opposed to in a country like France where they start earlier and it is common to fail a grade. 

Intrigued by Danish school system 

At the Copenhagen International School (CIS), the primary school’s deputy principal, Sabrina Manhart, said that she is intrigued by the Danish school system. CIS is situated in the middle of the embassy area in Hellerup and is a private school for mainly children of expats. 

As an American she is used to a system where children begin their formal education at the age of five. 

“Compared to the States and many other countries, the Danish children start late. But the things I have picked up about the Danish school system are really cool. I love the fact that they are not pushed academically until they are seven. In America it’s all about push, push push,” she said. 

The American school system has according to Manhart become increasingly focused on educating the children earlier on so they do well in the standardised tests, which are introduced to them from the third grade.  

“The kids have to do really well in the tests, and the schools have to make a certain amount of progress or else it can have big consequences for them,” she explained.  

“The PISA test is a part of this. In my opinion they are just teaching kids to know the right answers, which means that the children are losing their creativity. I think it backfired in America and now there is more of a push to teach kids about critical thinking.” 


Seven is a magic age 

Several Danish scholars argue that children in general are not suited for formalised learning before the age of seven. Manhart agrees with that claim.
“Seven seems to be one of those magic ages,” she said. 

“It has been proven again and again that at this age the children tend to go through a transition in their brain development, which gives them the ability to make cognitive connections. Many children can learn to read and write before that, but brains are wired to learn certain things at certain ages and 0-7 is a very optimal age for language development.” 

Even though Mejding is against an earlier school start, he still believes that there is room for improvement in the pre-school years.  

“It is important that the kindergarten teachers are well educated and that they have the right knowledge about child development,” he said. 

“I think there should be more focus in that area. We also need clearer objectives for the children’s development in the pre-school years. We can do an even better job than today.”