Is there an optimum age for starting school in New Zealand?

Full reference
Boereboom, J. & Tymms, P. (2018). Is there an optimum age for starting school in New Zealand?. NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 21(2), 32-44. Retrieved from 

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Original Research Paper
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Is there an optimum age for starting school in New Zealand?

John Boereboom* and Peter Tymms**
*University of Canterbury, NZ;
** Durham University, UK


Recent changes and reversals in school entry policy in New Zealand are a reflection of the widespread public and political debate about the optimum age for starting school. This raises the question whether there is an optimum age for starting school. The determination of readiness to enter primary school is a complex process. Identifying factors that contribute to a child's positive transition into school can help parents, teachers and the wider support network make a sound decision of whether or not a child is ready to commence primary school. This paper investigates the relationship between age, cognitive development and school readiness and concludes that at the national level there is no optimum age for starting school. The decision of when to start school is individual to each child.

Key words: Starting school, school readiness, optimum age, entrance testing.


Around the world there is a wide range of ages at which children start school. Northern Ireland is the only country which “legally obliges children aged four years to attend primary school” (Fergus, 2013, p. 1). In England children can start school in the year of their fifth birthday although almost all start at age four (Tymms, Merrell, Hawker, & Nicholson, 2014) and in Finland the school starting age is seven. Internationally the most common age for starting school is six (The World Bank, 2012). Some countries have a flexible approach to legislating the age at which children should start school. An example is in Scotland where children can start primary school between four and a half years and five and a half years (Bradshaw, Hall, Hill, Mabelis & Philo, 2012).

In New Zealand, enrolment and attendance at school is compulsory from age six. However, children can start school on the day they turn five years old. They do not have to wait until the start of a school term or school year. Traditionally it has been a rite of passage for children to start school on or shortly after their fifth birthday and this has meant that the age range is narrower than in many other countries where children often start on a particular date. The Education Update Amendment Act (2017) gave schools the option to consult with their school community to adopt a cohort entry policy. The Ministry of Education (MoE) (2017a, p.1) guidelines state

Children will be able to start at a school with cohort entry at the beginning of the term closest to their fifth birthday, or the beginning of a later term. This means that some children, depending on when in the term their birthday falls, will be able to start school up to two months before they turn five, while other children will have to wait up to two months after their fifth birthday before they can start school.


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