How old were you when you started school? I was five, having had my birthday in August. Back then nobody really went to school any earlier so I was very much the youngest in my class. Having said that, as the then only child from a highly organised, all adult household, I was not impressed! I have never been allowed to forget the fact that at the end of my first day I very politely went and said thank you for having me – and that I would come back when they got organised!
By that age I could read, write and handle numbers. This was not because I was a child prodigy or had been coached but because various members of the extended family had simply taught me as a natural part of everyday life. There were no developmental or other tests – in fact I can remember no tests until the 11+.
Things move on and we are hearing views from all directions on the best age for today’s children to start school. As usual we are trying to use a broad brush approach to make sure that everything is fair, with an eye always on the developmental checks, the progress reviews, the early years and baseline assessments, the Year 1 phonics screening, the Year 2 SATs … and all before children in other countries even start school.
Is it all actually about the children and their education or is it partly a reflection of the pressure on families to secure two income flows? All seems to be blurred around the edges with where the needs or priorities lie. Children are both pushed and wrapped in cotton wool, but are seldom allowed to just be. I am all too aware that my 70s parenting style of making little change to my life when my children were born, would not be seen as politically correct today. I am sure that simply taking the kids along, especially when that involved them sleeping in a buggy in a Majorcan bar, would be frowned on. Did it actually do them any harm? I don’t think so! Arguably it broadened their education to the point where they picked up Spanish along the way.
Not long ago I was in Sydney on business. Headlines in the family and education sections of the papers were all about the compulsory school enrolment age being raised and the large numbers of families that were aiming to keep their children out of school as long as possible. Many were looking to have their children spend most of their time at home – not home educating but simply being part of their family and community.
This struck me as a something of a surprise at the time as the educational system in NSW is probably one of the most competitive anywhere. Interestingly, however, we still find the levels of learning in their young people are advanced compared with ours by the time they are teens – despite their “late start”.
At the same time as the Sydney populace were starting their children’s schooling later, an array of “school readiness” programmes was springing up everywhere. These offered literacy and numeracy courses and were filling up fast so when is school, school and when is it not?
Whatever the formal age deadline that is imposed for children to start school, and whatever the cut-off date, there will always be children whose birthdays are just the wrong side of it – whichever the “wrong” side may be. Your view of that will depend entirely on your own individual experience. Isn’t that the point? Children are individuals and what is right for Sophie may not suit Molly at all. Josh may be longing for the chance to get stuck in to the challenges of school but his twin Ryan may still need more home support.
So at what age should school become compulsory? I have absolutely no confident answer.
Should all start in the same school year, regardless of their development? My instinct says not.
Can the schools offer the flexibility for children so each has their individual needs met? That is almost certainly impossible.
So what can we do? Perhaps just concentrate on our own children and make sure that they have whatever support they need to supplement whatever system prevails. Life is seldom fair but parents can at least make sure that they offer support, when it is needed, to level the playing field and so help their children to be happy and thrive.
By Jan Lomas
Curriculum Director for MagiKats UK, Principal of MagiKats Farnham and mum of two
Jan wrote this article in response to the news today that the British government is going to review the school entry age for children. You can read the official announcement here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/summer-born-children-to-get-the-right-to-start-school-later