I have three sons aged 9, 6 and 3 who attend an excellent state primary school. I believe we have two major, not-unrelated problems in our primary education system.
The first problem is that we are starting formal education much too young. An enormous quantity of research has been done in this area and the conclusions are always the same: starting formal schooling before age 6 or 7 brings no educational benefit to the child and indeed does educational and psychological harm to some. Children who are not ready for classroom learning do not achieve and are de-motivated from learning altogether. We send our children to school at age four for economic, not educational reasons. These first two years are there to provide free day care. Nothing wrong with that, but let's call it that and make it great day care, instead of pretending that forcing key words down the throats of four year olds gives them some kind of "head start".
We need to find a way to push the entire, jam-packed Reception year curriculum back by at least a year, preferably two years. We can still provide a play-based setting for 4 and 5 year olds -- there is plenty to teach them without formal literacy or numeracy. These years should be about exploring, developing physical skills, social skills and language skills in advance of more formal learning. I firmly believe we would find our children catch up with current standards by year 6 quite easily. Evidence from other European countries where the school starting age is 7 suggests that there is no advantage to our starting so young. We need to level the playing field for younger children, more active children, most boys and children learning English at school by pushing back formal literacy and numeracy lessons until all or nearly all of them are ready.
My second, though related, issue with the education system, is that the early start interferes with good phonics teaching. Study after study has shown that it is of paramount importance that children learn phonics first. Yes, English has a lot of words that are not spelled phonetically, but starting with phonics is crucial for our children to develop into accurate spellers and confident writers. Unfortunately, many children are not cognitively ready to learn to decode words phonetically at age 4 or 5. These children struggle along for a year or two and eventually after constant repetition memorize some words and learn to identify them by sight rather than decoding them phonetically. With great effort they eventually learn to recognize the most common words, but they end up poor spellers and readers because they can't sound out or write new words. The school then either has to send them for remedial phonics, or just pass them along to secondary school with poor literacy skills. It's a crying shame, as most of the children would have learned to read phonetically easily enough if their schools had been able to wait to teach them to read until they had the language and the cognitive development to learn representational graphics and sound blending.
Instead, we force literacy down their throats when only a few of them are ready, and the rest eventually decide they are thick. At the start of reception year, many children cannot yet even speak clearly. How are they supposed to learn to spell words they can't even pronounce yet? And what about the ones (17% in my borough) who don't speak English at home? Can we not give those kids a chance to catch up in the language of their education before chucking them into reading? Why can't we focus on their speaking and listening skills at this age with lots of show and tell, stories etc.? Spoken language is hardwired into us, it is part of what makes us human, and it is the first stepping stone towards literacy. Written language, though beautiful and important, is not natural, or easy, and we need to be more careful about how we teach it.
I realize it sounds like I am grinding a personal axe here, but I assure you that my two school age sons both came in to Reception year able to read and write already, so none of these complaints applied to them personally. I have spent a lot of hours helping in their classrooms, reading articles on the subject, and talking to other parents, though, and these are my observations and conclusions.