What is the 'right' age to start school?

Few if any of us can remember our first day at school. For me, it was the only day in my school career that I wasn’t behind in my homework!

Depending on the jurisdiction, one may have first attended school at the age of five, six or seven. Educationalists have been debating over the last decade the pros and cons of delaying the start of formal schooling until the age of seven.

The trend in the UK primary school curriculum over recent years has been towards an earlier start to formal instruction. Many, such as the Liberal Democrats claim this has resulted in an erosion of learning through play and so they advocate a “truly play-based” education with the age of formal schooling to be raised to seven in Scotland..

Children in England are admitted into reception classes in primary schools at the age of four. For those whose birthdays are in the summer months, they would have only just turned four.

In N Ireland the school starting age is four, the youngest in Europe. Children normally begin school in the September of the school year after their fourth birthday. If their birthday falls between 2 July and August 31, they do not begin school until the following September.

This stands in contrast to the vast majority of other European countries, many of which currently enjoy higher levels of educational achievement. In Europe, the most common school starting age is six, and even seven in some cases such as Finland.

Some researchers hold that the younger a child commences school, the higher the risk of them developing behavioural issues or speech and language difficulties. With the current inflexible system, it may mean that every year some children begin their school life at a time that might not be the best for them.

A good starting point in this discussion is to ask the question - When are children “ready” for school?

It is a question that is not often asked. We all develop at different rates on the different stages along the road to maturity but when ‘starting out’ there are many considerations that need to be taken into account.

In focusing on ‘developmental readiness,’ one of the first considerations is to see how the child/children can cope being apart from those who make up their world as they know it. The already established emotional connections and dependencies by the age of five can be very strong and while we all have to handle ‘separation’ at some time, not all circumstances are the same.

In developing their ‘separateness,’ children must also come to discover new things about themselves through their interacting with other children. As in any group, there will be those who are assertive and those who are shy or even afraid. Physical development can impact on this too as infants experience a sense of shared space.

All the evidence from international comparisons and psychological research of young children’s development points to the advantages of a later start to formal instruction, particularly in relation to literacy.

Dr Carmel Brennan, director of practice with Early Childhood Ireland, believes the first five years of children’s lives are crucial for them to explore their own interests.

“They are in the process of finding out who they are and we don’t want to start disciplining their minds too early. They are also ‘bodily active human beings,’ Their bodies are as important as their minds for learning, so we should not be rushing them into a classroom where they may be sitting for much of the day.”

Play-based pre-school activities allow children to learn in the safe environment of the home that they are familiar with and the key question is when should the transition between these surroundings and the start of “normal” schooling begin?

Independent schools have many varied starting ages. We read about the success of countries that are hailed for their approach with children beginning their school-life at the age of seven where the focus is on playful, creative learning in pre-school (Finland, Sweden and Denmark). It raises more questions about what is best.

The issue of ‘readiness’ is not easy to define. We can all come up with certain types of knowledge, specific skills or abilities that we think would be important when children start school. Basic social and emotional skills are also required to be able to participate in group learning sessions or whole class activities, as well as when working at a shared desk or playing games.

Within a formal setting of the structured classroom, demands will often be made of children that they would never have experienced before. These include having to concentrate for a length of time, listening and taking instruction from the classroom teacher and assistants and copying verbal and hand signal cues as a way of learning.

The typical day is built around formality and focus, something that is far from the spontaneous play and expression that young children have been used to before their arrival at school.

Making new friends and learning from peers is another aspect of school life that brings new aspects of creativity and challenges, all taking place in their new surroundings.

Actual age has in a sense nothing to do with the “right” age to start school for any child. Social, cultural, religious and other factors particular to one’s family and the school attended can be every bit as important as the needs of individual children at any given time.

The longitudinal study, Growing Up in Ireland, found that deferring the start of school seems to be more common among more advantaged families. While just over half of children born to low-income families in June 2008 started school in September 2012, then aged four years and four months, fewer than one in four children born the same month in families with the highest income levels did so.

This is significant because research links school readiness to future academic achievement, employment and behaviour.

In Ireland, children can be enrolled at primary school from the age of four years – and must start formal education by the age of six. The age profile of junior infants has been slowing rising since the beginning of the century.

In the millennium year, almost half of junior infants were still aged four by January 1st, according to Department of Education statistics. In 2016, just under a third (32%) of junior infant pupils had not yet turned five at the same stage.

All this points to possible changes going forward as we continue to re-evaluate the essentials of children’s early years development and how best to approach formal schooling.

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