Monday, January 23, 2012

Starting School: Is there a best age?

In Australia many children will be starting school for the first time next week. I can't remember my first day at school, but I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our two daughters off for their first day of formal schooling. As we've watched our grandchildren go off to school for the first time we still feel just as anxious. This year we have two grandchildren who will start in Kindergarten (the entry class for Primary schooling in NSW). One has just turned 5 and the other turns 6 in March. Both sets of parents made different decisions for equally good reasons, and I'm sure that in each case they have made the right decisions for each child.

Two cousins ready to start school, one almost 6, one just 5

In Australia the school year begins in the last week of January or the first week of February and ends in the same calendar year (in mid December). Every year we have media discussions concerning the best age to start. Last week, there was yet another piece of research being discussed on Australian television and radio offering advice. The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they are five years old or turn five prior to the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than 6. In South Australia children can start in the school term after they turn five. In Queensland there is a non-compulsory Prep year (like preschool) followed by formal school entry if the child turns six before the 30th June in that year. It’s all a bit confusing and the Federal government has been discussing a standard starting age for some time.

In other countries we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain 5 and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

Elsie's Mum on her 1st day at school
So is there a best starting age? If there is, few education systems seem to agree on what it is. "Should my child start school at five even though....(fill the blank)?" is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. Today I was interviewed on commercial radio on exactly this topic. The short answer I gave on radio is the same one I give to parents, it all depends. Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but variations from four and a half to six years don’t seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement.

It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school, so there isn't much pointing asking anyone what it is. In reality, we need to make individual assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

Is my child physically ready
  • Are they toilet trained?
  • Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro! And Kindergarten teachers are good at it anyway). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
  • Can they feed themselves (pretty much unpack their own lunch)?
  • How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
Is my child emotionally ready?
  • Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
  • Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
  • If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
  • Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
  • Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, watch some television, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
  • Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
  • Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
  • Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
Ultimately, parents need to make this decision based on what they know about their child. There are some other things worth considering:
  • What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
  • What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
  • What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
  • What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start till they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that the country in the OECD that regularly has the highest school literacy levels is Finland, where the starting age is seven!


AMA said...

Your grand kids look very happy in the picture! Very cute too! I'm sure they will be just fine.

juliette said...

One of the things I thought worked really well at the alternative school I attended (Currambena) was that it went from preschool to year 6 with only 4 primary classes and students moved up when they, their parents and teachers thought they were ready for it, intellectually and socially. This might happen part way through a year, rather than at the end. This meant that once you started your child in preschool (which could just be part time and extend to full time), then you didn't have to stress and agonize until high school (when it was much more obvious whether it would be good for the child to start high school a bit old or a bit young). Sadly (in some ways) my kids aren't there; the distance and school fees weighed too heavily against the benefits of the local state school we could walk to round the corner.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments AMA and Juliette. There are advantages to having preschool within the grounds of a primary school. Small schools also make transition from home to school easier. I once taught/ran a small one-teacher school that had 31 children in the 7 grades. Several families had multiple members, and most children were known. When kinders arrived at school adjustment was easier when surrounded by children from families you knew and sometimes even your siblings.

Nice to hear from you both.

Michalina said...

I've been searching through the Internet in order to find some useful information or at least any ideas for my essay about school starting age in Great Britain and I found this site. I must say it was a real pleasure to read this text, the more that it appeared very useful indeed. Although I'm a student,I think I'll be visiting the site often

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Michalina, I appreciate your comment. Good luck with the essay!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I was wondering if consideration should be given not only to current criteria as you have noted, but also to the likelihood of 'issues' arising in later years? I have been told by many parents that whilst a child might tick all the right boxes and be ready for school at, say 4 and a half or 5, they will probably have problems socially as they will not mature as fast as others in their year group when they are older (for example: driving age and drinking age). So is it better to hold a child back 1 year, to save them repeating in the later years?

Yummy Mummy? Really? said...

Hi Trevor,

I am putting together a round-up of useful 'starting school' posts for my blog and wondered if it was OK to link up to this post. I'll be showing small thumbnails of the sites I'm linking up to, so I also need permission to use a small thumbnail pic, maybe the one from this post please?

Is that OK?

Please feel free to drop me a line at my parenting blog (where the round-up will be published) at Yummy Mummy? Really? or reply here - I'll subscribe to replies.

Thank you.

Trevor Cairney said...

Sure, I'm happy for you to link to the post. Thanks for asking. Trevor