Starting School: How Old Should Kids Be?

Starting School: How Old Should Kids Be?

French President Emmanuel Macron lowers compulsory school age from 6 to 3 years”.

When I read this headline my heart sank into the depths of my stomach.

But then I read a little further and my heart started to make its way north again.

The main point of the article was to point out French children from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not have the same access to quality early childhood programs as other children.

The lowering of the compulsory school starting age in France is an attempt to ensure all children have the opportunity to receive quality care and education at a time in their development that is considered crucial.

For me this raises all sorts of questions and considerations (far too many to go into here) about the investment made in early childhood education, both internationally and here in Australia.

Although I don’t agree there should be a lower starting age for formal schooling, it would definitely be a positive move to ensure all children had access to quality, play-based early childhood programs.

Starting School: How Old Should Kids Be?

The headline also served to draw attention to the age children start their formal schooling, in Australia and overseas; this is something that often causes confusion and concern for families and educators.

When Does My Child Have To Start School?

I am currently in the process of filling out enrolment forms for my middle child to head off to ‘big school’ next year.

In New South Wales, we refer to it as ‘kindergarten’. This can be confusing, because the terminology used for the first official year of full time schooling varies, depending on which Australian State or Territory you live in.

I’ve often heard parents and educators say it would be great if the terminology were the same right across Australia.

Wouldn’t it be great if the starting age were consistent too?

  • ACT: It is compulsory for children to be enrolled in school from age 6 (www.education.act.gov.au)
  • NSW: Children can start Kindergarten at the beginning of the school year if they turn 5 on or before 31 July that year. By law, all children must be in compulsory schooling by their 6th birthday. (www.education.nsw.edu.au)
  • NT: Must be enrolled in the year they turn 6, if it is before 30 June. If children turn six after 30 June, they must be enrolled at the start of the following school year. Children can go to preschool (or kindergarten) and transition prior to turning six. This is not compulsory (www.education.nt.gov.au)
  • QLD: From 2017, it is compulsory for Queensland children to undertake Prep prior to Year 1. Prep is a full-time program in primary schools. Children attend Monday-Friday, generally from 9am-3pm. Children must be 5 by 30 June in the year they enrol. (www.qld.gov.au/education)
  • SA: If children turn five before 1 May they can start primary school on the first day of Term 1 of that year. If they turn five on or after 1 May they can start primary school on the first day of Term 1 of the following year. The one intake date brings South Australia into line with other states and means every child has four terms of pre-schooling and reception before starting the rest of their schooling. Children must be at school by their sixth birthday – this is the compulsory school starting age. (www.sa.gov.au)
  • TAS: Children and young people are enrolled at school or an approved home education program from the year after they turn 5, to 17 years of age. (www.education.tas.gov.au)
  • VIC: To start primary school children need to turn five by 30 April of the year they start school. They must be at school in the year they turn six – this is the compulsory school starting age. (www.education.vic.gov.au)
  • WA: Compulsory education starts in pre-primary, which is the beginning of the year in which a child reaches the age of 5 years 6 months (www.des.wa.gov.au)

International And Other Variations

Finland’s education system is often touted as one of the best in the world. One of its key features is the delayed school starting age.

Children start formal schooling at age seven, as the government recognises play as crucial for development in the earlier years. Steiner schools also start formal classes later than government schools.

The Finnish approach to education, with its commitment to play-based early years programs and a later school starting age, is admired by educators around the world. It seems to be catching on with parents too.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017 suggested parents were being influenced to delay the starting age of their own children.

When Should I Send My Child To School?

Sending your child off to school is a pretty big deal. For some families, the choice is essentially made for them, based on their child’s date of birth. Other families have options.

Because our children’s birthdays are early in the year, we have had a choice. So far, with our two eldest children, we have opted to wait until they were turning six.

Our youngest, however, could be a different story. That’s the key thing – every child is different. What is best for one might not be best for another. Drawing a line in the sand, based on age, can be a challenge.

Another thing to consider is the age variations that exist in the classroom. My son has just had his 8th birthday and is still attending birthday parties of children in his class who are turning 7. Twelve months might not seem like a huge gap, but at various stages throughout the years of schooling, age differences might become a factor.

How Can You Tell If Your Child Is School Ready?

Being ‘ready’ for school isn’t all about knowing your ABCs, 123s, shapes and colours. Children aren’t required to be able to read or write. In fact, the pressure placed on children to be ‘academically ready’ for school is unnecessary.

Children need to have opportunities to play and to develop a love of learning naturally.

Some indicators of readiness are:

  • Confidence (to ask for help or speak their mind)
  • Social skills (ability to relate to others)
  • Ease of settling (happy to separate from parent at drop off)
  • Self help skills (dressing, using the toilet, packing a bag)
  • Eagerness to explore and try new things
  • Communication skills
  • Fine motor skills (be able to manipulate their fingers – this will help them as they learn to write)
  • Emotional regulation.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Many children start school with some areas they still need to work on. However, if you look at your children and wonder whether or not they are ready to start school, consider these indicators; it might help you make a decision.

Also seek the advice of educators at preschool or child care, or at the school in which you intend to enrol them. Ask the opinion of other people involved with your child.

What If I’m Not Sure?

My advice as an early childhood professional has always been this: if you can give them the gift of an extra year of play and development, then why not do it?

Some families simply do not have that option. But if you’re not 100% convinced your children are socially and emotionally ready for the long days and the busy schedule of full time, formal schooling, then do them a favour and give them an extra year.

Flip the narrative: don’t think of it as ‘holding them back’, think of it as a gift.

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Nicole Halton CONTRIBUTOR

Nicole is an early childhood consultant who spends her days talking and writing about play and the importance of childhood, while avoiding stepping on Lego, playing tea parties with her toddler and looking for her keys. Nicole loves to read, is a keen photographer and is at her happiest when she is outdoors with her husband and three children.


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