Should children be starting school at a later age?

Matylda Dyrda in the junior infants class, North Presentation Primary School, Cathedral Walk, Cork City

The trend towards a later school starting age is growing. What implications — if any — does this have have on policy and costs, asks Education Correspondent Niall Murray.

CLOSE to 72,000 children began their formal schooling in recent days, and around 90% of them will go on to sit the Leaving Certificate in around 14 years if the current school completion trends are maintained.

The fact that children are starting at an older age has been highlighted previously in the Irish Examiner, and our latest analysis of official figures show the trend has been continuing.

Instead of having an almost even match of pupils aged four or five in their charge, as was the case as relatively recently as 2000, junior infant teachers will have nearly two five-year-olds for every one aged four next January. That is the point each year when schools report their pupils’ ages and to which the statistics here refer — showing how more and more of those starting school are in the older age bracket.

Should children be starting school at a later age?

The continuation of the pattern raises a range of questions about what has influenced such a swing in thinking among Irish parents, and what implications — if any — it might have on policy, costs or other considerations.

The figures are a reflection of Ireland moving more in the direction of what happens in other countries, according to Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) associate research professor Selina McCoy.

“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.

“There is evidence internationally that children starting school with higher levels of school readiness will have more positive orientations towards school and more positive academic self concept and peer relations.”

It might be suggested that such a growth in older children in infant classes was attributable to the availability since January 2010 of the free preschool year. It is expected to be availed of by 95% of eligible children this year, numbering around 68,000.

But the trend of children starting school later significantly pre-dates this policy change, which is costing around €175m a year.

With the significant attention put on rising costs of childcare during the economic good times of the early 2000s, particularly as more households had both parents working, it might have been expected that children would have been dispatched to school early. Or at a minimum, that their start in primary school would not be deferred longer.

While this does not appear to have happened, recent evidence from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study which is tracking 11,000 children born in 2007 and 2008, gives some further insights.

It shows, for example, that any benefits of a later school start may be disproportionately felt more by children from better-off homes.

While just over half of children born to low-income families in June 2008 started school in September 2012, then aged four years and four months, fewer than one in four children born the same month in families with the highest income levels did so.

“It is clear from the figures that deferring school start seems to be more common among more advantaged families,” says the report on GUI findings in relation to starting school.

Differences in ability to access preschool without Government support also emerge when family income is taken into account. Just 9% of highest-income families said they would not have been able to send their child to preschool but for the State-funded early childhood care and education (ECCE) programme, compared to 39% of families in the lowest income bracket.

This may also be worth considering in Government circles as ministers consider the recent recommendations of an inter-departmental group that examined future investment in early years and school-age care and education services. It proposes a range of options of how to extend the free preschool system, beginning either at age three or three-and-a-half, but without the current limit of 38 weeks’ provision.

If children availing of these extended options were to begin primary school aged four, they would receive between 35 and 69 weeks of preschool under the State-funded scheme, depending on what month they are born. But starting at the age of five, that level of provision would increase to 73 to 97 weeks.

Clearly, this would increase the likelihood of the existing pattern of starting primary school later being even further accelerated.

But those making the decisions might also need to consider, given what the GUI research has shown, whether poorer children who are likely to start school earlier anyway might end up beginning junior infants with far less preschool provision than those from better-off homes. With less early education under their young belts, and therefore less of the benefits that it can have in preparation for primary education, could the gaps already proven to exist in educational outcomes for children of different social backgrounds end up being widened?

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Ms McCoy points to potential positive implications on who goes to third-level and, more importantly, what they study, and how they fare.

“I would expect an effect in terms of people’s decision making, as they tend to make more informed choices when they are older,” she said.

That could have implications for levels of dropout at college, which are attributed in many cases to students picking courses they were not well suited or academically able for, as well as to social and financial factors.

These considerations may be a long way off for the children who have been experiencing their first taste of school this week. But they are the kind of questions that may well have already influenced parents over the last decade or more as they think about when to send their children into the big wide world of formal education.

They should also be examined carefully by Government departments and politicians as they look at early education policy.


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