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Why I disagree with lowering the school starting age

Kindergarten has so many cool toys

Image: Flickr user Squiggle

Children in New Zealand, probably 99% of them (a big guess on my part!), start school when they turn 5. It makes me wonder how many parents think that this is the legal age that children must start school. The legal age for attending school in New Zealand is 6 years and you must stay in school until you turn 16 (unless you get an exemption).

Labour MP, Louisa Wall, who I must admit is possibly the flavour of the month in NZ politics at the moment is proposing that the school starting age be lowered to 4 years. [Article here] It turns out, according to Labour Leader, David Shearer, that this is something that Louisa has been talking about for a few weeks now, but mostly at a localised level in her electorate of Manurewa [see end of this video from Breakfast from about 4:25].

I think the point made of getting more children into some form of Early Childhood Education is valid. It will definitely help set them up for school. However I think that there are a lot of students who simply are not ready for school at 5 or even 6 years of age. Especially boys. They need time to play. And play is a very important factor in learning at that age. By putting formal education in front of them, they will not cope.

As a father of 5 children, 3 who are currently at school and one at kindergarten (the other is nearly 3), at least one of the older three could have done well by starting school a bit later. At least one of them was ready to go to school at about 4 and a half. We need to recognise that all children are different. The biggest concern I have about starting compulsory schooling at 4, would be that it would become too formal and structured. The Te Whariki early childhood curriculum in New Zealand is I believe well regarded around the world. It’s principles encourage relationship building, development, family and community connections and empowerment. From what I understand (I’m certainly no expert on this!!!), learning from play and encouraging participation is a big part of this.

Children are all different. They need time to develop at their own pace. They need opportunities to learn in their own ways, including learning about things that are of interest to them. Starting school at 6 years old is perhaps a reasonable compromise. I think that free play needs to be encouraged in the early years of school to help these children develop. Even as I watch my own children play at home, I can see them developing. The way they (boys and girls) play with the Lego and build structures and machines, I can see how their thinking and skills have developed over time. They are like little engineers – and pretty good ones if I say so myself – however I don’t want to push them to keep doing that. If they choose to, that is fine, but I want them to have a range of opportunities and interests.

We need to let our kids be kids! Let them play, to explore, to try out various things and see what happens! They need opportunities to succeed and to fail. They need to learn that it’s okay to fall, and getting hurt is part of life – but let’s keep the adventure going!

UPDATE: 5:32PM 10 September

After writing this post, someone posted a link to this article on Facebook where an academic suggests that children shouldn’t be starting formal education until age 6.

6 thoughts on “Why I disagree with lowering the school starting age

  1. I agree with everything you have written here Nathaniel, especially about how different our kids are. It does seem like a long time to be in education (5yrs- 16yrs), but probably think the time is more relative to the ‘quality’ of the day, rather than the length of it.

    My son can’t wait to get to school. At 4 1/2 he’s a bit of a nerd…I blame the iPad! He wants to do loads of ‘writing and counting’, but as his mother, I think he needs more playing outside on the climbing frame, as well as the social skills, the ability to negotiate with others and to ‘find himself’. The choices for learn/play, the informality/flexibility in a pre-school context, as well as the rich relationships with many educators – is key here. I love his pre-school and hope that school will offer the same opportunities.

    I think if schools wanted to, they could re-think how they meet individual needs of all our young school starters (5 or 6), including boys. Watching schools adapt to the circumstances in CHCH (following the earthquakes), then finding that senior students did comparatively well under the circumstances, makes me think twice about our ideas about formalised education.

    I think parents need their kids to be at school, so we can get earn a double income. I’m just wondering…does everyone need the same structure/formalities that is the ‘known’? Should the time of the day be the same for every child? Couldn’t teachers individualise modes of learning, so that some kids had more concentrated learning times, while others had more time for constructive play? After-all, we can localise the curriculum can’t we?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Tessa.

      I think you are right that schools “could re-think how they meet individual needs of all our young school starters”. As a secondary teacher, I’m not sure of what flexibility primary schools have in this area, but perhaps it’s something that needs to be considered.

      You raise some very good questions about the structure/formalities of school life etc. I think it would come down to how flexible schools and teachers are willing to be. We could also be using the technology that is available (and I know this is already happening in some places) to allow for this flexible style of teaching and learning and individualised modes of learning, as you have suggested.


  2. I totally agree with everything that has been said and would like to say that all children are individuals and their needs in eduction needs to be just as individual. Some children can handle school at 4 and some can’t and shouldn’t be there until 6. As a board member at a primary school for the last 17 years what I see is that more children are starting school without basic skills to cope with all of what school has to offer even at 5 years, more are coming into school without basic language skills and the teachers have to adapt the curriculum so these children can become effective learners. At our school all 200 odd students have individual learning plans developed by the teacher. At some stage we need to stop pressing the problem on the schools and pre schools and put the problem back on the parents who are not educating their children at home and don’t get involved with their child’s learning for various reasons. We are constantly having to come up with new ways of getting parents involved even going to the extent of parents having to pick up school reports at three way conferences with child and teacher then we still have only about 80% participation

    1. Thanks for the comment Racheal.
      You’ve highlighted a big issue about parent involvement in education and schooling. As a parent rep at my kids school for the last couple of years, I’ve seen those difficulties you talk about. 80% participation in my view should be celebrated, but I know we always strive for that 100% mark. I think a lot of it depends on the community we live in also and it’s culture. Somehow we have to get parents to see that education is not just about their child and the school/teacher. It involves them as well – in fact they are crucial, I believe, in achieving a well-rounded education for their children. Parents, family/whanau must be involved.


  3. Great post Nathaniel. I agree with you on all your points. As an ECE trained teacher I cannot rave on enough about the importance of play and inquiry based learning (and many other things – I could go on and on about this). I am also a huge believer in developing dispositions for learning in those early years so that we get children starting to school that are actually ready to learn. I don’t believe in “teaching” formal skills to those under 5 and I truly believe that new entrants and Year 1 teachers need to link more with Te Whaariki (and their local kindergartens for that matter!). Let’s put the focus back on quality ECE – including 100% qualified teachers and more accountability to quality teaching (too many private providers making money at the expense of good teaching). Let’s also support Parents to be good teachers too.

    1. Thanks for you comment Leanne.
      You’ve made a lot of good points that I agree with! I’ll just focus on your last one as I think this is so important. I think it would be great to see our government helping to empower parents in this area. I’m not sure how exactly, but I think it would have a big impact on education in New Zealand and on achievement.


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