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Does age determine a child’s school readiness?

New data shows more parents in Australia’s most populous state are choosing to delay when their children start school. WhichSchool? examines the latest research around the age-old school-readiness debate.

When is the right time to start school? It’s a question parents have been asking for generations. Too soon and they risk being left behind, too late and they could miss out on valuable experiences in the classroom. Making the right choice can feel impossible and recent data has only reignited debate, revealing many families are choosing to delay the start of school until kids hit six.

A recent article in The Age reported enrolments for children who turn six by July in the year they begin kindergarten – the first year of primary school in New South Wales – increased to 19,019 last year, up from just 13,209 kids in 2012. They now make up 28 percent of enrolments compared to just 19 percent a decade ago. This is a significant leap – one that could have huge implications for the decisions of not just other parents, but educators and policy makers as the makeup of the classroom shifts.

In New South Wales, children born between January and July can start school aged four and a half to five years or choose to delay a year and start aged five and a half to six years. But children born August to December almost always start school in the year after their fifth birthday.

In a landmark 2019 study, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) released research examining the link between child development and school starting age, finding a strong link between age and developmental skill in the first year of school. Researchers studied more than 100,000 students starting kindergarten in NSW and found one in four families delay school entry until the year their child turns six.

Analysis of the huge dataset was led by Dr Mark Hanly at UNSW Medicine’s Centre for Big Data Research in Health and published in UNSW Newsroom. Dr Hanly found children born from August to December were ideal to study how age is linked to development due to their lack of choice in when to start school, compared to their January to July born peers.

“When we compared their developmental data there was a clear trend: outcomes improved with each additional month of age,” Dr Hanly says.

“Month-on-month these differences are quite small, there’s not a big gap between August-born children and September-born children, for example. However, accumulated over a full year, these differences add up and unsurprisingly there is quite a large development gap between four and a half year olds and six year-olds.

“What the data really show us is that, on average, children who start school in the year they turn six are more likely to have developed the skills and competencies needed to thrive in a formal learning environment, compared with their younger peers who start school in the year they turn five,” he tells UNSW Newsroom.

The study also found significant geographical and social variation in the families who opted to delay.

“Boys, younger children, and children from relatively advantaged families and neighbourhoods – particularly in Sydney – were more likely to delay,” UNSW and the Australian National University study director Dr Kathleen Falster says.

“This might be because parents and teachers believe that boys and younger children are often less school-ready – but delaying school entry can come at an additional cost for families, especially if the alternative is expensive childcare.”

Dependant on the area, rates of delay ranged from eight percent to 54 percent across 198 areas in NSW, with lower levels of delay recorded in disadvantaged urban areas.

Early childhood education expert and co-author on the study, Australian National University Associate Professor Ben Edwards says the results of the study had the potential to impact policies on children’s readiness for school, as well as classroom composition.

“One policy option is to raise the enrolment age to remove the most developmentally vulnerable children from the schooling environment – which would also narrow the gap between the youngest and oldest children in a classroom,” Edwards says.

Long term impacts 

While these results underline that kids who start school later may be better adjusted for the first year, it falls short of drawing conclusions on the long-term effects of starting school either earlier or later. 

Research published in 2006 in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis concluded that there are no long-term disadvantages, academically or socially, to delaying school. Though it conceded little was known at the time about the impact of school age entry into high school and beyond.

Another study from 2009 published by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggested markedly older or younger students in a cohort were initially found to be disadvantaged in the classroom, but that any variance in performance attributed to starting school later were negligible by high school.

The study also reported that students who start earlier often have more motivation to ‘catch up’ with their cohort and may be more engaged over the long-term than their older peers. However, researchers from UNSW say a more solid evidence base is needed on the long-term effects of a delayed school start.

“We need more longitudinal research on the potential for initial age-related differences to impact later school outcomes – while some earlier studies have suggested academic gaps closed between younger and older children after first grade, the long-term implications just aren’t clear yet,” Dr Hanly said.

NAPLAN performance 

An article published in The Conversation by researchers examining the link between delayed school entry and scholastic achievement compared the NAPLAN reading and numeracy results of children who were held back with those who were sent to school when first eligible.

The study compared the scores of 2823 children in the reading and numeracy sections of NAPLAN tests for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Researchers found students in Year 3 received slightly higher results in NAPLAN if they were held back, compared to their peers who were not. But this slight advantage reduced at Years 5 and 7. By year nine students who were held back did no better on NAPLAN tests than those sent when first eligible.

The researchers found that even differences in age of 12 months or more appeared to make little difference to NAPLAN achievement later in school. The results also indicated individual differences in focus and attention ability may matter more for NAPLAN achievement than a delayed start to schooling.

However, the study did not take into account the social or behavioural skills of children, which is undoubtedly an important factor in the decision for parents deciding to delay the start of school or not. Despite this, the results, again, suggested delayed school entry does not have a large or lasting influence on academic achievement. However, the fact is the choice to delay the start to school is on the rise amongst families in NSW.

Speaking to The Age, mother of four from Sydney’s south Steph Cochrane said she will be waiting another year to send her daughter, Florence, to school.

“I just think there is never a con in holding them back,” she said.

While Cochrane said her child was academically and emotionally mature, she said that parents only regretted sending their children to school earlier, not later.

“Kids who have good emotional wellbeing and are happy, they’re the ones who are going to learn,” she said.

Measuring a successful transition to school

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics approximately 100,000 students started primary school in NSW in 2020, including 70,610 children at government schools. The NSW Government website underlines that for these children, it is their transition to school that counts in the long run.

However, although there is a significant amount of literature on this topic, there remains a lack of clarity surrounding how to measure a successful transition to school. Indeed, a range of factors may need to be considered, but are beyond the control of parents.

The NSW Government 2021 ‘Transition to school’ literature review pointed to COVID-19 as one such consideration. Though the review concedes there is limited research on the disruption the pandemic has had to children’s development, initial emerging research suggests the negative impacts should not be underestimated. 

Other considerations mentioned in the report include children’s emotional, social and developmental skills, the support available to them once they enter the classroom and the continued monitoring of their progress.

The report said school readiness is now widely accepted to be a multi-dimensional concept that incorporates not only a child’s readiness for the learning environment, but also the learning environment’s readiness for the child. School readiness also includes the capacity of families, communities and services to provide the necessary opportunities, conditions and support to optimise children’s learning and development.

With so much to consider it is no wonder parents are choosing to err on the side of caution when it comes to choosing a start date for their children. Though there are many conflicting views on the matter, ultimately the decision is made with the individual child in mind. It is clear more and more families are choosing to delay, only time will tell if it makes a difference.

Key points

– Around 100,000 students started primary school in NSW in 2020

– 70,610 of those were at NSW government schools

– Children who turn six by July in the year they begin kindergarten increased to 19,019 in 2022, up from just 13,209 2012

– They now make up 28 percent of enrolments compared to 19 percent 10 years ago

– On average, children who start school the year they turn six are more likely to have developed the skills and competencies to thrive in a formal learning environment

– Students in Year 3 received slightly higher NAPLAN results if held back. But this slight advantage reduced at Years 5 and 7. By Year 9 students held back did no better on NAPLAN tests

– One study showed any variance in performance attributed to starting school later were negligible by high school age.

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