Children are to be allowed to decide when they should start learning to read and write under a radical education initiative being tested in Switzerland. The aim is to allow "gifted" pupils to move forward at an earlier stage.
Under the existing education system, Swiss children spent up to two years at kindergarten, where the emphasis is on social skills, play and creativity. It is only when they start primary school at around seven-years-old that they begin to learn to read and write.
But a pilot project currently running in a Zurich school is now looking at whether children between the ages of four and eight, who have the desire and ability to learn to read and write, should be allowed to start earlier.
The initiative, known as "elementary cycle", has been endorsed by cantonal education ministers, who want to introduce greater flexibility into the system to allow "gifted" pupils to start learning literacy skills earlier.
"If the child wants to participate in reading activities and is able to do it, it will be up to the child to decide with the support of their teacher," Gabriela Fuchs, spokeswoman for the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, told swissinfo.
The proposed system envisages radically changing the structure of children's years at kindergarten. Instead of children of the same age group being placed in the same classes, as is now the case, children from four to eight would all be part of the same educational "cycle", creating classes with a mix of different age groups, different languages and different learning abilities.
Fuchs says this would allow children to progress according to their own individual abilities, enabling some to start learning to read and write before they reach primary school.
She adds that the cantonal education ministers do not believe there is an ideal age for children to start school. "At this stage you will find important differences even between children of the same age group in terms of their cognitive, intellectual and social abilities.
"Instead of saying that, from now on, all schoolchildren in Switzerland will start at five, the cantonal ministers of education prefer a flexible solution for the future."
The debate on whether children should learn to read and write before they reach primary school has raged for many years in Switzerland.
The average starting age for Swiss schoolchildren in primary school is six years and seven months. But each canton has its own minimum and maximum starting ages.
Children in canton Ticino, for instance, start getting to grips with the alphabet from the age of five years and seven months, whereas a child in canton Graubünden is not required to start school until he or she is seven years and seven months old.
Swiss children typically start school later than their European counterparts, with schools in Britain and France admitting youngsters from the age of five or even younger, giving them a substantial headstart.
However, Allan Guggenbühl, a lecturer in child psychology, told swissinfo that there was no evidence that the Swiss system of allowing children time "to play and be a child" left them at any disadvantage.
"There's been much scientific research done which shows that it actually doesn't make a difference if a child starts learning to read at five, six or seven, if you compare it with the results that you have at the age of 10," he said.
"It's not the case of the earlier the better. It's more a case of when the child picks up reading, it picks it up anyway."
Pressure on teachers and children
Guggenbühl broadly supports the "elementary cycle" project, but is concerned that it may lead to pressure being put on teachers and children by parents.
"The problem is - and this has also been discussed - is that maybe parents will start to put kindergarten teachers under pressure," he warned.
"They might say 'well, what about my child, why doesn't my child learn to read?'. One fears that, in the long run, all children will have to learn to read and write [earlier] because pressure will come from the parents."
Vreni Scherrer König, an English teacher working in an all-girls high school in Bern, agreed that the new system would not only create divisions among parents, but also cause major problems for teachers.
She feared that teachers with classes of around 20 pupils would find themselves pulled in two directions - having to cope with the needs of their more "gifted" students as well as those of the rest of the classroom.
Teacher training colleges in Switzerland are already taking into account the difficult balancing act that kindergarten teachers could face in the classroom, but critics argue that the initiative will be hampered by a shortage of teaching staff.
"Yes, I think this is a way forward, but I don't quite see how it will work out," said Scherrer König. "At the moment you have one teacher per 20 kids which would mean that the teacher would need to find a lot of time individually for each child.
"In Switzerland at the moment we lack money for education and we have had cutbacks in the system, so I see that as a problem."
by Adam Beaumont