Three quarters of new junior infants aged five

Nearly three-quarters of children are starting school aged five — outnumbering four-year-olds nearly three-to-one.

The older profile of junior infant pupils represents a significant turnaround from the start of the last decade, when almost exactly even numbers of four and five-year-olds started school together.

The latest data on infant ages from the Department of Education show that 48,857, or 71%, of the 68,438 who began junior infants last autumn were aged five. A further 18,650 were four, representing 27%, with less than 950 aged six or seven.

The information relates to the ages of children on January 1, as schools are asked in their annual returns to provide the age of every enrolled pupil on that date each year.

In the 2011/2012 school year, 68,745 children enrolled in junior infants, practically identical to the most recent figure. However, the number of four-year-olds was 26,768, representing 39% of the total, and over 8,000 more than last autumn.

The trends has been highlighted in the past by the Irish Examiner but predates the introduction of the free year of pre-school for all children in Ireland from 2010.

While five-year-olds were more numerous among the 52,000 children who started primary school in 1999, things were much more even. They accounted for 51% of the total, compared to 47% who were aged four at that time.

The gap has continued to widen every year since, at the same time as a baby boom has seen primary enrolments soar.

With the exception of just three years when there was a slight drop every year between 1999 and 2013 saw the number of junior infants rise, reaching a peak of nearly 72,400 for those starting primary school four years ago. After minor falls in 2014 and 2015, the number beginning their primary education fell by over 3,000 to 68,438 between autumn 2015 and 2016.

However, the upward age profile of these pupils has continued, with experts previously suggesting this should mean greater school readiness among pupils.

There is evidence that it is more likely to be children of better-off families who see those benefits, as they are much more likely to be sent to school at an older age.

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