What age is best to start school in NZ? The evidence and practical pros and cons of lowering the age or increasing it

By Dr Sarah Alexander expert on child learning and effective teaching
© ChildForum

school bagsIn New Zealand nearly all children have their first full day at primary school on or very close to their 5th birthday. This is a social custom as it is not a legal requirement for families to enrol their child until 6 years of age. Parents have a choice to continue their child in early childhood education or to stay at home until 6.

There are academic arguments for and against starting school before Age 5 or changing the compulsory age to 6 or 7.  There are also a number of practical and financial arguments.

At schools in the Tamaki-Glen Innes area children, two-thirds of whom are Pasifika students (whose main language at home is not English and another quarter are Maori) are reported to be starting school two years academically behind the national average. 

Children living in the most deprived areas where families do not have access to a licensed ECE programme are one group for whom lowering the school age to 4 years is a strategy worth considering to raise child outcomes.

A second group of children for whom consideration could be given for allowing an earlier entry to school than 5 years would be preschoolers who are gifted and needing more intellectual challenge than their same age peers. 

BUT there are issues to consider for both groups of children, such as the appropriateness of the school curriculum and setting. 

AND in countries with well-resourced early childhood education systems where the school starting age is 6 or 7 years of age children are not disadvantaged by a later school starting age and do just as well academically - and arguably better! 

Research on the benefits, or otherwise is not clear-cut and this is also discussed below.

On top of such issues early childhood providers understandably may be very sensitive about any discussion of lowering the school entry age, as if this were to happen schools would be taking some of their potential clients (i.e. families) and possibly even some of the funding that Government pays to the ECE sector.

There are many aspects to consider, learn about, discuss and debate. Read more ...


Young Children Who are Gifted

The results of a survey in NZ of provisions for gifted children in the early years by Margrain & Alexander (2012) shows opinion is divided over whether there should be flexibility in the minimum school starting age for gifted children to enrol in primary school education before they are 5 years old. Forty-five percent of respondents agreed that there should be flexibility, 36% disagreed and 19%  were not sure.  What surprised the researchers was that the large amount of additional comment that this question generated - this is a politically and professionally hot topic!  Most respondents who were against permitting early school entry gave one or more of the following arguments:

  1. Children benefit from the importance of relationships with same-age peers.
  2. Children under five years lack emotional immaturity.
  3. The early childhood education setting is a more appropriate setting for children under 5 years to be in. 

Respondents in favour of early entry to school considered children should be able to access and attend whatever environment would benefit their learning best. It was considered that, for some children, school provided particular opportunities for academic and intellectual extension. Access to appropriate programmes and interaction with older children was seen by some respondents as critical for the well-being of some children who are younger than five.

Some respondents suggested that it should not be an “either/or” choice between early childhood education and school, but instead innovative solutions should be developed such as dual enrolment, or specialised centres for 4-5 year old gifted children. Barriers to early school entry were not seen by all participants as insurmountable, and instead it was noted that the focus should be on opportunities for better supporting young gifted learners. For example, suggested strategies to provide emotional support alongside early entry to school were initial part-time attendance by the child, and parents attending with their child (Margrain & Alexander, 2012,  p. 10).


Early Intervention for Poor and Vulnerable Children

The Abecedarian programme in the United States, provides one of the most rigorously conducted longitudinal studies of the effects of 5 years (preschool) plus 3 years (school) intervention on children living in poverty. The intervention was intense, with children starting in the preschool at around 4 months of age, attending  8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks of the year. Children were provided with a specially designed educational programme to support their development. Medical care (e.g. immunisations) was provided on site. Parents were involved in the programme and given access to classes such as on toy making. Help with housing, food and transportation was provided to families. Some of the children attended the preschool programme only (5 years intervention), some the preschool and school programme (8 years intervention) and others the school programme only (3 years intervention).  

In follow-ups, children who attended the preschool-only programme out-performed those who attended the school-only intervention and those who had a longer duration of intervention did better than those with fewer years of intervention. The results indicate that early intervention is better than later intervention. The results also indicate that for long-lasting positive effects on the development of children living in poverty, it is vital to provide medical support, wrap around support for the family, and encourage family involvement in the educational programme. Simply placing children who are vulnerable in a preschool programme at an early childhood or school facility will not, on its own, be an effective intervention.  


School Starting Age and Children's Outcomes

How the Performance of Older and Younger Children in the Same Class Compares

A number of research studies have documented the adverse effects on academic performance of being the youngest student in a classroom (see Dobkin, 2007). Dobkin argues that while students who enter school early typically have poorer academic performance, on average they also tend to stay in school longer. 

The Impact of School Entry Age on Academic Achievement

In the Netherlands education is an important investment. More than 90% of children begin school at age 4 years. There is a concentration on providing preschool education for disadvantaged children, and since 2010 municipalities have been required to offer ECE to all under 4s with language difficulties. The role of the family is highly valued and parents are supported to be their child's primary caregivers for the first 4 years. When children start school there is good provision of after-school care to support parents to engage in paid employment.  

The educational attainment of children on average is better in the Netherlands than in NZ. Below is a table, taken from The Netherlands Study which shows this. It is not possible to say that a lower school starting age is the cause of higher educational attainment as other cultural and economic factors also come into play. Nonetheless a lower country school starting age does not seem to place children at a disadvantage over children who start school later. 


  Average Mean     
Literacy Score 
Literacy Inequality   Youth NEET (disadvantage in
education and employment) rates
Netherlands 521.0 1.6 3.9
New Zealand    524.3 1.7 8.5
OECD 496.3 1.7 7.4


Questions and Answers

Question: Can early education be offered in a school setting?

Answer:  Early childhood education can happen anywhere - as long as the programme is implemented thoughtfully or planning has gone into the how, what, and why, of teaching and learning.  It is up to the Ministry of Education and its interpretation of licensing regulations as to whether it will allow the person or organisation to provide a licensed ECE service.

Question:  How would early versus later school entry affect a child's educational achievement?

Answer:   International research suggests that, in their later years, children who start school at age 7 do just as well as children who start school at a younger age - but the evidence is not conclusive (much seems to depend on whether the early childcare system is well-resourced and factors in children's own home-backgrounds). 

Internationally six is the most common school starting age.  NZ is the same as the UK with a school starting age of 5, though children in the UK can start school in the year of their 5th birthday.  In Northern Ireland the compulsory school starting age is 4 years.  

Early educational intervention, before age 5 has been shown by research to be very beneficial for children who are at-risk, including those living in poverty, to ensure they do not get left behind educationally - but again this when the early childcare/education system is not well resourced to support children at-risk.

Question:  Is the school curriculum able to cater for 4 year-olds?

Answer:  In NZ the school curriculum is designed for children aged 5 years and older.  It is unsuitable for younger children. Teaching more formal skills at an earlier age may give some younger children an academic advantage, but this tends to be a temporary advantage.  Early introduction to a formal curriculum may have a negative impact on children's motivation to learn and increase anxiety.

Question:  Could the early childhood curriculum be made available to four and five and six year olds in primary schools?

Answer:  There is no reason why not.  Some early childhood teachers hold degrees that cover the teaching of children from birth to 8 years of age.


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