That crazy-weird feeling you get after first being asked, “What Primary School will she go to?” All you can think about is, my little bubba’s not ready for school! Yet, in Australia, it’s a decision that needs to be thought about from an early age. Will it be your local Public School, Catholic or Independent? If you are looking at going to a school other than your local one (they must accept your child), then the enrolment process can start quite early.
There has been a growing debate over what age is best for kids to start kindergarten (or whatever else you call the stage before Year 1 in Primary School). In Australia, NSW has the latest cut-off where all children must be in compulsory schooling by their sixth birthday. Or they can start Kindergarten at the beginning of the school year if they turn 5 on or before 31 July that year. There is a slight variation across the States in Australia and Independent Schools also have their own criteria. For example, at Newington, a boys school in Sydney’s Inner West, they must turn five by January 31 .
However, if we look at some of the leading educational system around the world such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden, the children do not start school until they are 7 (although most kids are still in the Early Childhood education system before then)!
Across the world, some conclusions from research are:
- Children benefit from a play-based early childhood experience
- Some form of early childhood education (Childcare/Pre-school) is desirable
- Repeating a grade is worse than starting school at a later age
After chatting with other parents, I was pretty convinced that there was a massive change in trends with a lot more starting Kindy at 6. However, from 2006 to 2016 it only rose 3 per cent, but the trend is still increasing and it is similar in the US.
Obviously, wanting to make sure I made the right decision for my daughter, I initiated numerous discussions with educators and parents around the world. They were all pretty unanimous in saying that the main thing that they looked for was that they were ready socially and emotionally. Australian researchers found there are 6 common concepts to look at when discussing the school transition phase: readiness, relationships, transition activities, teaching methods, power, and policy.
Key indicators of being ready to start school:
- Ability to self-regulate.
- Can they communicate how they are feeling?
- Can they focus on a task for an extended period of time?
- They can sit still and follow instructions.
- Do they want to go to school?
Positives and negatives of holding your kids back
Even if you believe that holding your child back will be more beneficial, the cold-hard truth is that for a lot of parents, it’s not a financially viable option. Unfortunately, early childhood education is more expensive than sending your child to school. If more (capable) kids are held back, this will only lead to the gap widening between well-off kids and those with low-socioeconomic backgrounds.
For example, Nathan (not a real person) a 4 half-year-old child below the developmental milestones would have to go to school with an almost 6-year-old, Timothy (not his real name) whose parents decided to hold their child back because that’s what they do in Finland. This would lead to Nathan’s already low self-esteem getting lower when he has to go up against Timothy every day (even though we don’t want to compare, it still happens).
If the gap increases, the repercussions could be quite significant not just for the child, but on our economy and the lives of young people, if the skills and knowledge of lower-achieving students decreases (when our educational standards are already quite low when compared to the rest of the world). This will impact the workforce, higher education programs and even see an increase in mental health issues.
Should there be a clear definitive age for all kids to start?
How early childhood education is seen from outsiders
- Childcare is seen as a glorified babysitters club
- Kindergarten is viewed as more of a place for learning
The realities of early childhood education
- Programming and reporting is done in Childcare/Pre-School as it is in Kindergarten
- Childcare costs more to send your kids to, yet workers get paid less
One Kindergarten teacher from a Primary School in Sydney made an important comment that “At the beginning of the year in Kindy, the gap is quite large (which is normal, based on the different exposure different children have), but it will always close quite drastically as the year progresses.”
Other parents spoke about how the routine of school can actually help their kids who are usually fidgety. Another major difference is going from having multiple educators in Childcare to predominantly just one. While the teacher is unable to give as much one-on-one attention, over the year they get to know and understand the kid’s needs and interests better. As a parent, gone are the days of typing in an individual passcode and signing in and out, to drop-off and pick-up your child at childcare. What happens in Primary School is quite different, as one parent put it, “just drop and run at the school gate, is pretty overwhelming for child and parent!”
What we can do to help prepare our kids for Kindy
- Help them develop their self-regulation and self-help skills. This can be done through questioning and getting them to help around the house.
- Let them discover a love of learning through doing things like playing with them, reading to them and setting up art and craft activities. Ensure they can hold a pencil correctly.
- Support the transition through books, images, and names of where they are going.
- Ensure that they fail, lose and don’t always get things their own way because life ain’t easy and the earlier they understand this the easier life is to manage!
- Let the kids be kids!
From a personal point of view, having taught in both Primary and High Schools and in the Public and Private systems, I have learned a number of things:
- Every school has great teachers.
- Some classrooms look really colourful and pretty and others just have desks and chairs – all classrooms have the potential for students to learn.
- There are some kids who can ace a test but can’t hold a conversation.
- Unfortunately, there are kids who can be mean at every school.
- Parents and carers still have more influence on a child. Teach them the things that matter and be the person you want them to be like because you are their role model.
I understand that parents and carers want the best for their children. While I know that my daughter will be ready from a developmental point of view, I did question whether she would be okay being in the same class as some students almost 18 months older. As someone with a sporting background, I could see this as being quite a disadvantage, especially for boys.
We want kids to be achieving more academically from an early age, yet we also want to copy the gold-standard of education in Finland, who encourage play-based learning up until the age of 7! So, Scandinavian children do start school later, but even when they do start, the focus is still quite different. Maybe, the problem with education in places like Australia, is not so much whether a child should start school later, but rather our curriculum needs to allow them to develop through play-based learning. This would decrease so-called “behavioural issues” reported and make the learning goals more achievable for 5-year-olds.
We need to shift our focus in education to be about helping the kids develop a love of learning and reviewing their progress, rather than comparing, marks and grading.
I know I’m not the perfect parent, but I also realise that in order for my daughter to become the best version of herself, it is just as important that she fails (and learns from her mistakes), as she succeeds. Being exposed to people of various backgrounds is important because it allows us to understand what society is really like and that the environment that you are in doesn’t have to change the person who you are. While my daughter may gain some benefits from starting school later, I also feel that any challenges she faces (from starting school on time) will only make her stronger in the long run and that I know she will have the support of family, friends, and teachers to ensure she is able to overcome those hurdles.
So, when you are deciding on this stressful decision, ask yourself these four questions:
- How would you judge whether your child has been successful throughout school?
- What sort of person do you want your child to be like when they finish school?
- How will the age that they start school impact on them becoming the best version of themselves?
- What are you personally going to do, to help your child become the best version of themselves?