How an economist would decide the what, when and how of reception year

Clare Sealy has written an amazing blog post explaining why rising 5s need to learn through a mixture of explicit teaching, whole class collective experiences, and play-based encounters. The early years isn’t an area of research for me, but it is a field I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about simply because my own children and those of my friends are currently so young.

Clare’s blog describes the controversies around the question of how we should educate in the reception year. However, I think questions of what and when we should teach young children are equally contentious. Reception year has moved from something that lasted only a few months for many (e.g. me) a generation ago to a de facto compulsory year of schooling and I’d like us* to conduct more empirical research on when it makes sense to teach complex skills such as reading and writing to children.

As an economist, whilst I am supporting my own children in learning new skills (potty training, arithmetic, reading, getting dressed etc…), I wonder why we don’t talk more about the opportunity costs involved in the decisions we make in reception year. What other opportunities must we give up when we decide to teach 4 year olds to read, or to learn some French words, or their number bonds to 20, or to learn a repertoire of songs by heart, or how to identify trees by their leaves?

Economists naturally think in terms of costs and benefits – here our costs are time costs. For example, we choose to potty train children about a year later than they were a generation ago. Why? By delaying we can invest far fewer hours in the process – hours that we then get to spend doing other things. We can afford this delay because disposable nappies are now cheap enough to use for extended periods of time. Equally, we now invest hundreds of hours ensuring children can read the word ‘mat’ when they complete the reception year. That has great benefits to the child, but it has also cost them time which they were then not able to spend doing other things that are promoted in other cultures, such as numeracy or memorising a repertoire of songs, dances and poems.

If an economist was asked how reception year should be organised, they would want some data on these time-investment trade-offs. For example, in the case of teaching a child to read through an explicit phonics programme, they would want to know exactly how the age at which a child starts learning affects the number of teaching hours that need to be invested. The chart below illustrates a trivial example of this. Suppose my daughter started a phonics programme at age 5 and it took her 300 hours of teaching time to complete. How many hours would it have taken if we’d started at age 3? 750 hours? 1000 hours? Would it be worth it? What about if we’d delayed until she was 7? 150 or 200 hours? Would these time gains make it worth delaying? Suppose we could draw a similar chart for a child who comes from a less book-rich home? Would the chart be steeper (i.e. the gap in time investment needed compared to my daughter closed somewhat over time) or flatter? I think we can be fairly sure the curve would be steeper for boys than girls, but by how much? These charts wouldn’t tell you when you should teach phonics, but they would make explicit one bit of evidence we need to decide at what age we should start teaching children to read.


Now, suppose we have two goals – learning to read well enough to pass the phonics test and achieving fluency in number bonds to and within 20. We can choose to start a phonics programme at the age of 4, but that doesn’t leave enough time to also achieve fluency in number bonds as well. Which should we prioritise in the younger children and which should we concentrate on later? An economist would say it depends on the shape of the curves. I suspect (based on my sample size of 2 children) that arithmetic has a flatter curve than reading so that the time investment for learning number bonds at age 4 is not vastly higher than it is at age 5.

These curves are fictional – I don’t know what they look like for real children. But I’d feel far more comfortable explaining to a foreigner why we teach our children to read soon after they are four if I knew the time trade-offs involved in this decision.

Economics is the coldest of the social sciences, but this analysis places every hour of children’s precious lives at its heart. It reminds us that we should take care in balancing the gains from learning new skills against the costly time investments of teaching new stuff to young children. And it reminds us that, whilst it might be more efficient to teach handwriting to four year olds through more explicit and formal methods, this fact alone doesn’t mean we should do it. We should also weigh up the relative time investments involved in choosing to bring forward the teaching of a new skill to the reception year, rather than deferring it to year 1 or 2. Indeed, I suspect much of the raging argument about how we should organise the reception year gets confused by private disagreements about the what and when.

(This is a slightly trivial New Year blog post that summarises everything economics has to say about the reception year. Economists shouldn’t decide what the reception year looks like. Don’t let them.)


* not me


Still reading? OK, here is the indulgent bit where I tell you about my personal views on the reception year:

  • I only did a few weeks in reception class and I did OK in life – I can’t help feeling that if it were so critical to start things young then other countries would be doing it too
  • Child-initiated play was great for my eldest in playgroup, where the adult-child ratios were high; it was pretty sub-optimal in reception year where there were necessarily frequent child-on-child interactions that could not be mediated by an adult, producing endless social/emotional issues. The thought of having to put my youngest through reception year doesn’t fill me with joy for this reason
  • We aren’t ever going to get larger physical spaces and more adults in reception classes. With that in mind, my dream reception year for my children would be 2-3 hours a day at school for collective activities (singing, learning poems, games) and structured work at tables, then back to pre-school for lunch and afternoon play.

7 thoughts on “How an economist would decide the what, when and how of reception year

  1. Alison Shore

    These are very interesting comments Becky you echo the thoughts of many reception and actually year 1 teachers I am sure …me being one. I know you are not being completely serious but it is important and frustrating for many parents and tea hers so thanks for raising. We need to change our mindset ! At our school we do genuinely concentrate on the what and when because our methods are based on a truly individualised pathway. We recognise the need for children to play run explore and investigate. Reading Writing solving maths problems are vitally important but they should be experienced as you say when the child is ready and it certainly should be meaningful. The terms ‘we are doing’ phonics/maths etc shows where some teaching and learning is failing our children. I have found that allowing children to come into school and simply have a chat with each other often looking at a book, playing a game or just standing or sitting on the carpet for the first 15 minutes of the day makes them ready to learn . The more formal learning takes place generally in the mornings BUT equally during the afternoons. That’s when the application happens through play indoors and ou creating investigating and following lines of enquiry the children have created.
    I look at my class of 5 year olds and think they have only been on this earth 5 years …they need to be allowed to be who they are without clamping them into the education box which is a fit all system. Come on Becky let’s start a revolution!

  2. Anna Perry

    Interesting. I had to address a lot of educational trade offs with my own daughter who attended a French bilingual maternelle and primary school. For what it’s worth, I think it is very efficient for children to be taught French cursive penmanship in MS (reception) and GS (year 1) and to read in CP (year 2). I was thrilled that my daughter could write neatly with an ink pen aged 6 and thrilled that learning to read (using a French phonics programme) took about 5 minutes. I also love the French practice of learning poems by heart: it’s great for expression, spelling, vocabulary, performance as well as the practice of mémorisation and the children don’t mind a bit.

    Aged 11, my daughter was an excellent reader and writer in both languages. Learning to read later than in the English system did her no harm at all.

    1. Very interesting to hear the experiences in other countries. I’ve also been hearing about far East countries that don’t worry about reading until 6+, but do develop numeracy skills in pre-school settings. We’ve certainly lost the art of learning poems and songs by heart – it is such a shame.

    2. Anna Perry

      Another trade off that fascinates me is the one between between drawing and writing. My friends who became mothers earlier than me warned me that their children spontaneously stopped drawing for pleasure when they learned to write. I made sure my daughter did extra curricular drawing classes to prevent this. Only later did I read Stanislas Dehaene and his research into reading in the brain and how reading/writing use the same bits of the brain that drawing does. And so many talented artists are dyslexic. Are their drawing skills not being cannibalised too early/soon by literacy, and they therefore continue to develop skills that children who have too much early literacy pushed upon them cannot develop?

  3. Jill Allen

    As an elderly youth leader who has worked with children from 6 to 12 for over thirty years I have noticed a deterioration in the skills of using scissors, gluing, drawing, colouring and sewing in recent years. I’m guessing that’s because there’s less time to develop these skills when the priorities are early reading and writing. With more leisure time many adults now enjoy craft activities. Will today’s children have the skills to do this?

  4. Dave Jones

    There are other trade offs going on that we simply don’t know about but getting children “school ready” always feels like a narrow, bad deal to me. I work in Secondary science and a project I was involved in some years ago seemed to show that, over time,11-12 year olds were becoming less confident in their grasp of “conservation of mass”. This is critical for understanding all chemical reactions amongst other things. Looking back this seemed to coincide with reduced play time in the early years where children would transfer sand or water back and fore between jugs and containers. After a while they would learn that some quantities would stay the same regardless of the container – not realising that this would be a critical concept in their learning a decade later!
    Is there any evidence examining children’s conceptual development over time and whether this is improving year on year… or declining?

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