I am unable to find any justification for the current worldwide mania with academic hothousing of children from ever younger ages. For a British Council study, I have now been to four countries to study middle-class unhappiness and been horrified by the pressure that is now the norm. But it is just as bad here, as a recent visit to a potential nursery for our daughter showed.
The well-meaning principal tried to persuade us that our daughter should learn French at three and follow an academic curriculum. If our daughter came from a low income home with few books and very harassed parents, there just might be a case for something like it, but not for the wealthiest two-thirds of the population.
Then again, I have to admit to a bias against formal education which is not wholly rational. My own schooling went about as smoothly as skiing over Tarmac. Because I was an aggressive, selfish boy (primarily because my parents had not taught me the basics of good behaviour very well) I loathed having to do anything I did not enjoy. Until well into my teens, this made me unpopular with other children and teachers alike.
When I was 10, the headmaster at Westminster Under School, then a strict prep school, told my startled parents that I was mentally handicapped. True, I was appallingly behaved, but beating me almost weekly with a rounders bat was probably not the most effective way to remedy this alleged affliction. (My mum met him years later at a dinner party and was able to triumphantly tell him that I had done OK in the end.)
The unfortunate confluence of a rather chaotic punishment regime in my early childhood with archaic corporal admonishment at school was the root cause of my problems. Of course, today there are no beatings and even the strictest of prep schools pays at least lip service to the emotional needs of the children. And it would be hardly fair of me to condemn modern hothousing simply because Mr Badger, my maths master, would take the short hairs beside my ear in his fingers and pull them, with the words, 'And, James, the isosceles triangle is..?'
In my case, there was an urgent need for discipline, albeit not beatings. But what I have not forgotten is the tiresome emptiness of what we were being taught. Modern syllabuses are much more child-friendly than the grim rote-learning drivel we endured, but
I have grave doubts about the point of a lot of the data that has to be downloaded by our mini-computers during primary education today.
In much of northern Europe, formal education does not begin until the age of seven. I know of no scientific evidence that forcing children to absorb facts or to do the three Rs before that age is ultimately beneficial. While brain elasticity is greater the smaller the child, so is the damage done by neglect or abuse.