What Age Should Your Kids Start School? It's Complicated

A new study of more than 100,00 Australian children has investigated how the starting age for school affects kids' development and suggests that starting later could lead to better development in the first year of school.

A study led by researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, has indicated a relationship between the age that kids start school and their development over their first year of schooling.

The researchers examined school census data from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) for children who had started at a NSW public school in 2009 or 2012.

In NSW, children born from January to July can start school at four and a half or five years old -- or parents can choose to delay until the child is five and a half to six years old. In NSW, this means that there can be vast age differences of up to eighteen months between children in classrooms.

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Every year Australian parents struggle with this decision and the ideal age to start schooling has been a topic of a great deal of developmental research.

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty around this topic. Whilst researchers acknowledge that having children of many different ages affects the social fabric of classrooms, there is no consensus on the appropriate age a child should start school.

One paper on European on school starting age states "The evidence from the USA suggests that there is no lasting advantage (or disadvantage) to children who enter school a year later than their peer group".

One in four Australian parents choose to make this delay on school entrance and in Sydney and its surrounding areas, affluent and regional areas have a higher percentage of children starting late.

Dr Kathleen Falster, one of the paper's authors and a researcher from UNSW and the Australian National University (ANU), said that the link between affluence and late school entry may be due to the financial demand of keeping a child at home for an extra year, particularly when the alternative is expensive childcare.

Boys, younger children (born closer to the July cut off) and children from socioeconomically-advantaged families and neighbourhoods were more likely to be delayed in entering the schooling system.

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Family backgrounds also appeared to play a role -- children born to mothers from Australia or northern Europe were more likely to delay compared to children born to mothers from Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East.

Children born from August to December have no choice about the year that they start school so the research focused on the developmental differences between these children. This ensured that socioeconomic differences, in particular, did not have implications for the kids' AEDC scores. 

The AEDC looks at five domains of development for children: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge.

Teachers complete the AEDC regarding their students in the child's first year of primary school.

The research ultimately found that outcomes in the AEDC improved with each additional month of age that a child was when they started schooling, suggesting that starting children later at school may be beneficial for early education development.

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Associate professor Ben Edwards told 10 Daily that while the developmental difference month-to-month was minimal, older children did seem to do better and "over the six month period we can see some larger differences".

"If you scale that up, that gives us a true estimate of the school-age impact," Edwards said.

However, the AEDC is conducted in the child's first year of schooling, regardless of age so it is unclear whether the differences that the researchers observed were measures of 'readiness' for schooling or simply a product of the rapid development that occurs in early childhood between kids who are five and a half or six years old, for example.

Edwards also noted that the jury is still out on whether or not these early childhood indicators of social, language, cognitive, emotional, and communication competence have implications for how well a child does academically later in life.

While some studies suggest that scoring highly in these early developmental milestones indicate long-term success in terms of emotional and social development, Edwards concedes that "there's other studies that show the reverse".

Edwards believes that, particularly considering the wide-ranging implications of education policy, there is a strong need for more long-term studies in Australia to track the development of early or late starters when it comes to schooling.

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Edwards states that rising the enrollment age could perhaps "take out those younger kids who are a bit more developmentally vulnerable" but this could cause profound problems for families who are not in an economic position to continue childcare for an extra year.

Falster said that for the moment, the age at which parents should send their kids to school is a personal judgement call and while there are some research indications, Falster believes that families should simply consider both the available evidence and what they know about their child.

"For parents who are faced with that decision under the current enrollment policies, I would encourage them to look at these population-level trends -- but you know your child best and the health and developmental needs of that child," she said.

Edwards added that preschool and childcare supervisors can assist parents in making these decisions.