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9th November 2019
Although accepted as the normal protocol across the United Kingdom, children starting school at 5 years old is actually quite unusual. The most common age to start school across the world is at age 6. So why the differences and what are the effects?
Firstly we need to consider what is meant by the term school. In the UK, for example, school is generally thought of as the beginning of formal education. Plenty of children attend nursery school from age 3, but we don’t consider this to be school per se. In France, for instance, recent changes mean that children are now obliged to attend school at 3 years of age rather than at the previous compulsory starting age of 6; but the reality is that this new age for starting school actually refers to nursery and simply makes it compulsory for children to attend nursery at age 3 (something that most French parents already did anyway). So, from here on we’ll consider school to mean the beginning of more formal education – formal because plenty of learning happens in nursery.
With most issues in childcare and education the answer is a bit more complicated than a yes or no. It very much depends on what school and what children. Insofar as children are concerned, there is a huge range of development at the ages of 4 to 6 years. Some children are very much ready to start something more formal while many are not. Lots of parental anxiety focuses on the perception that their children will be ‘left behind’ if they don’t start school with their chronological peer group. However, although best-intentioned, this anxiety is misplaced. For example, self-regulation (the ability to manage emotions and interact productively) is a much more accurate predictor of school success by age 8 than school starting age. In other words, starting school at 4 or 5 or 6 is not the largest variable in determining later academic performance. In fact, it’s not even a significant one.
Ironically, some children may benefit in the long run by not starting school at 5 and instead spend their time developing the social and emotional skills that they will need to achieve success in the classroom; skills that our education system at large is not necessarily best equipped to develop. And this shouldn’t come as such a surprising revelation; after all, some of the most successful education systems in the world have a much later formal school starting age. Children in Finland, for instance, start school at 7 years of age and those children go on to typically outperform our children in Reading, Maths and Science.
And now to schools themselves. There is a noticeable shift towards more play-based approaches in the early years of schooling across the UK. This reflects the need to develop children holistically: that it is both desirable and effective to do so. Indeed, the starting school age of 5 years in the UK was introduced in 1870, by the Victorians, as a protective factor against dysfunctional parenting and had little to do with education itself (at least in the sense of Maths and English). It was, you could say, the first example of early intervention; something we’re seeing increase now with the introduction of free nursery places for the most vulnerable 2 year-olds.
So schools are adjusting and becoming more equipped to develop the much coveted social and emotional skills that children need to succeed. Much of this is happening through play-based interactions and nurture in classrooms. Some school and authority leaders are unfortunately, if understandably, nervous about this; especially in cases where academic achievement has shown a dip in performance in the succeeding few years. However, we must reject fully this desire to see immediate satisfaction from our interventions, a disease that has unfortunately also hampered educational policy-making for decades. Educational reform takes a long time to bear fruit because children take a long time to become economically measurable quantities.
So is 5 too young to start school? Only if we take our definition of school – as the beginning of more formal education – too literally, and merely pay lip-service to everything else. The best schools must be ready to position the holistic development of each child as its first priority for the first couple of years. And if they do then all of our children will benefit enormously.
Posted in categories: Parenting, Play and Learning