What is the best age for starting school?

June 2017

The Government’s proposal to allow schools to adopt a cohort entry policy for new entrants opens the door to children starting school before they turn five. Dr JOHN BOEREBOOM evaluates the international research and experience and considers what this means for New Zealand’s youngest learners.

handpaintingIn New Zealand children can start school on their fifth birthday. They do not have to wait until the start of a school term or school year. However, once they turn six they must be enrolled and attend a school or kura every day. The Education Update Amendment Bill currently before the House empowers schools to adopt a cohort entry policy. The proposal would mean that children start primary school at the start of the term closest to their fifth birthdays. This opens the door for children to start school from as early as age four.

This amendment has a potential impact on schools, parents and most importantly children and raises the question: what are the educational and economic benefits and pitfalls of this change in policy?

For primary schools there are definite benefits to cohort entry and Dr Peter Ferrar at Cornerstone Christian School in Palmerston North feels most schools would be happy with the change. Isleworth School principal and Canterbury Primary Principals’ Association president Jeanette Shearer said cohort entry could simplify schools’ enrolment processes. Starting a new term with a cohort of children is easier on classroom programme planning than having children constantly transitioning into the school.

The same cannot be said for the early childhood sector. Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds called the cohort proposal a “funding cut by stealth”. The reduction in enrolments could potentially cost the early childhood sector $11 million if it was adopted by all schools.

For parents it may be possible to return to the workforce earlier and reduce childcare costs. Parents also feel that starting school earlier gives a child a head start and a better chance of achieving academic success in later schooling.

The most important stakeholder in this debate is the child. What does the research say about the best age to start school?

The NZEI Te Riu Roa, the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, the School Trustees Association, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) and New Zealand Kindergartens (NZKI) disagree with cohort entry. NZEI president Lynda Stuart said there was no research “to suggest group entry provides educational benefits over the current individual system”.

Internationally the most common age for starting school is six. In the UK children can start school in the year of their fifth birthday and in Northern Ireland the compulsory school starting age is four years. In Scotland children can start primary school between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half.

An international study of reading achievement in 15-year-olds across 55 countries showed no significant association between reading achievement and school entry age. In Scotland a major study measured what children know when they start school and tracked their progress to the end of year 3. The study found that the progress by the end of year 3 was independent of the age of starting school.

In New Zealand, studies have compared groups of children who started reading instruction at ages five and seven. Their results show that by age 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. Portobelo Preschools principal leader Dr Sandy Radford has expressed concern that ”starting school before age five would hinder children’s cognitive and social development and change the culture of new entrant classrooms”.

Clearly the educational benefits to starting school early are debatable, but are there any negative consequences from forcing students to engage with formal instruction at too early an age?

Forcing a child to engage with formal education at too early an age can encourage negative attitudes to reading and mathematics instruction, which may persist throughout schooling. This is particularly evident for boys. There is increasing evidence that points towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. New Zealand has a world-class early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, which “is underpinned by a vision for children who are competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging”.

Professor Thomas Dee, from Stanford University, found that many of the inattentive or hyperactive behaviours could stem from starting school too early. He said delaying the start of school could reduce hyperactivity and inattention in the classroom. This is supported by a recent Danish and American study, which found that delaying a child’s first day of school for a year could have mental health benefits, including reducing the chances of hyperactivity and inattention.

All of the studies reported were carried out with large samples and use robust statistical analyses. This leaves the parent wondering how these findings apply to an individual child and in particular their child. The decision of what age to enrol their child at school can be one of the most difficult decisions for a parent to make, particularly if their birthday places them in a grey zone. If they are too young, will they be able to cope at school? Will they suffer academically if their enrolment is delayed? A typical scenario discussed in the kindy carparks throughout the country would be whether to send little Johnny or Mere to school at age four or let them play for another year and develop their personal and social skills in a less structured environment.

Melbourne education consultant Kathy Walker says, “Parents can’t be expected to make a completely independent decision on whether their child is ready to start school.” It is all about the school-readiness of the individual child. Data gathered by the PIPS school entry assessment provided by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Canterbury University shows that the social and emotional maturity of the child is as important as their cognitive ability to count and recognise letters and shapes as a predictor of future achievement.

Under the new policy, parents would be able to decide whether their children enter formal education at age four or five. Clearly the decision as to when to start school is unique for each child and many children will gain long-term educational benefits if their enrolments are delayed. So where can parents turn for advice? The child’s preschool teacher can provide valuable advice on school readiness because they observe the child in a learning environment every day and watch their interactions with other children and adults.

Dr John Boereboom is the director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the University of Canterbury.


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