Four years and two months can be too young for school

3 Feb 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Feb 2017

Scope takes a look at the school starting age and asks if it is too inflexible, and whether it should be the starting point for a revision of some of our methods in early-years development.

Northern Ireland’s compulsory school starting age is the lowest in the world.

Children as young as four years, two months – and their parents - can face no option but to attend primary school.

Parental concern regarding this issue is longstanding, and has grown over time, resulting in the formation of the grassroots School Starting Age Flexibility NI campaign.

This campaign is co-led by ParentsOutloud NI, and ATL (the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and has signatories that include Early Years – the organisation for young children, the local third-sector group that has become a global leader on development in the 0-6 age range.

It was sufficiently successful that, during the 2011-16 Stormont mandate, it looked as if the Department for Education would pass measures to introduce a degree of flexibility for parents.

A public consultation took place between December 2014 and March 2015 however, despite proposals being put forward by the department, no legislative changes were made.

Then minister John O’Dowd was criticised for making a u-turn; he had indicated that parents should have a right to request a year’s deferral of P1 for their child if they could provide information about why this would benefit the child.

However, the onus would then be on parents to provide evidence that their child was failing to meet developmental milestones - and requests would only be granted in exceptional cases.

Why change?

These proposals were prima facie straightforward and campaigners would have accepted them as a degree of progress, even though they were still some way from the requests being made by ParentsOutloud and ATL, who wanted the following children in the following categories to have the right (so the choice of parents, not the state) of a one-year deferral:

  • Children born in May, June, or July 1st
  • Children born prematurely
  • Young-for-year children born as part of a multiple birth
  • Children with non – statemented additional needs
  • Adopted and looked after children

This request was made for the simple reasons that there is no academic advantage to starting school at the age of four, and the fact that children “who are young within their academic year are at greater risk of suffering both educational and psychological disadvantage.”

In the end, all that happened was the Education Authority published “guidance” for parents on the school starting age. This amounted to nothing more than a statement outlining that status quo as it stands.

Similar questions are being asked in other jurisdictions. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) based on data in England (where the school ages are somewhat different from here, with the cut-offs all shifted back by two months) stated that there is a “long history of research in the UK and elsewhere showing that children who are born at the end of the academic year tend to have lower educational attainment than children born at the start of the academic year…

“There is also growing evidence that the month in which children are born matters for a range of other skills and behaviours as well, such as the likelihood of being assessed as having special educational needs at school, and children’s self-esteem and confidence in their own ability.”

Further questions

The ParentsOutloud and ATL campaign was straightforward reasoning for a straightforward request. But it all takes place in a wider context – the question of how best do we help the development of children in early years.

The IFS report cited above also found that children born in the final two months before the cut-off point (July and August, in the case of England, compared with May and June here) are 6.4% less likely to achieve five GCSEs (or equivalent) and around 2% less likely to go to university (and around 2.3 percentage points less likely to attend a high-status Russell Group institution if they do), when compared with the oldest children in their year group.

Furthermore – and weighted to take account of age differences, strengthening the conclusions – it found that those born at the end of the academic year are also:

  • likely to exhibit significantly poorer socio-emotional development
  • likely to have significantly lower confidence in their own ability
  • significantly less likely to believe that their own actions make a difference (i.e. more likely to have an external locus of control)
  • more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as underage smoking

While the report found that the negative effects tend to taper off into adulthood, these results remain concerning.

In Finland – which for years has been recognised as the country with the world’s most successful school system – the starting age is seven.

However, the development of children there is not simply shelved, but rather it is promoted through play until they reach that age. In total, children there spend relatively few hours in the classroom throughout their lives, and this model is being looked at (if not pursued) in countries around the world.

Certainly, the broad philosophical differences in approach between education in Finland and education locally, and the differences in outcomes, provide plenty to think about. The early years have rightly been given more and more prominence in NI policy in recent years but that does not mean that further, significant progress cannot be made – especially when other pressing matters, like childcare and general health and wellbeing, would best be integrated into whatever we decide is best practice.

For the third sector, asking such questions would likely lead to huge opportunities, given how significant a player the sector is in this area already and also its track record in driving innovation.

In the meantime, there is both anecdotal and data-driven evidence that some local children are being compelled to begin school too early and to their own detriment.

When Stormont gets back on its feet the matter of school starting age should return to the table quickly.

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