Rise in children starting school later

Isaac Jones Saleh's first day at North Presentation Primary School, Cathedral Walk, Cork City.

Almost two thirds of children are now starting junior infants at, or almost at, the age of five, as more parents wait longer to send their children to school, official figures reveal.

Analysis of Department of Education statistics show that four year olds made up almost half of the junior infant classes of September 1999, but made up just a third of those grades in the last school year.

In the same period, five year olds have gone from just over half to nearly two thirds of junior infant pupils.

Every autumn, schools notify the department of the age that children on their roll books will be on the following January 1, with over 98% of junior infants always in the four-to-five age bracket. In January of this year, 65% of the 71,662 children who started school were five, compared to 34% who were four.

A combination of factors may be contributing to the consistent swing over the past 15 years towards enrolling children at an older age.

While the introduction in 2010 of the free pre-school year may be a factor, the trend began at least a decade earlier, in spite of worries about spiralling childcare costs during and after the Celtic Tiger years.

Selina McCoy, associate research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, said the trend brings us more in line with school starting ages internationally and is largely a positive development.

“It is likely to result in higher levels of school readiness, more positive school adjustment and engagement as children are more likely to follow and understand curricular content,” she said.

However, those increases in numbers starting school later may be benefiting children from better-off homes, judging by early findings from the long-running Growing up in Ireland study. It showed that deferring the starting of school is more common among more advantaged families.

It also revealed that girls appeared to be more engaged by the spring after starting school. They were less likely than boys to complain or be reluctant to go to school, and more likely to say good things about school.

There has been international debate on this issue, with some countries considering policies to have boys start school a year later than girls. While such a move might be controversial, Ms McCoy said there is good evidence that girls are typically more likely to accomplish the skills associated with successful transition to school earlier than boys.

Around 95% of children now avail of the Government’s free pre-school year before starting primary school, and a range of options to extend the provision are being considered ahead of the 2016 budget next month. In a report last month, an inter-departmental working group recommended a range of ways to do this, which could add from €72 million to €171m to the current €175m annual cost.

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