When is your child ready to make the transition from play-based learning to school?
Parents of new-entrant-age children born in June or July are faced with choices: do you pack your child off to that first day of primary school when they’re four-and-a-half so that they’ll arrive with their preschool friends?

Or do you hold off until they turn five, risking some dissociation from their peer group and dropping them into school halfway through a year in which those peers have a head-start?
Or do you wait until the beginning of the next school year, possibly further exacerbating that dislocation, but also possibly allowing the child more time to mature into a formal learning setting?

The options open to parents are fraught with wider concerns that have been debated for years. How do we weigh the advantages to kids of things like a stable and familiar peer group, against more development time?

Australian study

A recent Australian study from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) reveals some interesting trends that are broadly applicable in New Zealand.

Using data for more than 100,000 children, the study shows that in New South Wales the parents of more than one in four new-entrant-aged children choose to delay entry until the year their child turns six. Affluent parents are more likely to delay entry, illustrating the fact that the debate goes way beyond pure pedagogy and enters into a broader conversation on social equity – there may be a financial cost to holding off on school entry that limits the decision-making of the less well-off.

The study, led by Dr Kathleen Falster, also found that there is a strong connection between the age that children start school and their measured developmental skills in that first year of school.

“When we compared their developmental data, there was a clear trend”, says Falster.

“Outcomes improved with each additional month of age.

“Month-on-month these differences are quite small; however, accumulated over a full year, they add up, and unsurprisingly there is a large developmental gap between four-and-a -half-year-olds and six-year-olds.”

‘Development’ in the context of the study has been quantified using the Australian Early Development Census, which comprises more than 100 data points across five domains: physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge. Teachers in New South Wales complete this assessment in the second term of a child’s first full year at school.
Like the vast majority of other similar studies, the UNSW researchers caution against taking the data presented as any kind of policy advocacy, and emphasise that more study needs to be undertaken.

Big questions

Kiwi academic Dr Sebastian Suggate of Germany’s University of Regensburg has devoted a large part of his research career to examining the impacts of formal literacy learning at different ages. His doctoral research, published in 2009 while he was working at the University of Otago, made it onto the university’s list of distinguished theses at the time.
The question Suggate sought to answer was: is there any appreciable long-term academic advantage to be seen in children who are exposed to formal literacy learning at an earlier age? The research, which included both domestic and international studies, compared two groups of children: one group from a Rudolph Steiner background – who usually begin learning literacy from age seven – and another from a mainstream state school background.

And the result? By age 11, there was no difference in reading ability between the group that had begun formal learning at age five and those who didn’t start reading until age seven.

Suggate has since conducted other studies in New Zealand and abroad into the same questions and come up with the same result, as have other researchers in the field.
For policy makers, education theorists, teachers and parents, these results raise some interesting questions. Is there something other than formal learning that kids should be doing when they’re five that could help them make the most of their potential? And should they be doing whatever that might be at school or at home?

Suggate is quick to point out that the nature of his academic discipline makes designing robust studies difficult, and resistant to absolute conclusions. Firstly, he says, we need to be careful about separating conversations around methods that are used to teach, and children’s readiness to accept them.

“If you look at [that first year of schooling] in New Zealand it’s a far more constructivist approach – lots more small group work for example. Whereas if you look at the first year here in Germany, they’re a year and a half older, but they’re learning in what we might call a more formalised way. It really depends on what you do with the children.
“A focus on rich, interesting language learning benefits all children. Not necessarily through reading, because the foundation of reading is language, and the foundation of language is real and genuine experiences with the world.

“Internalised sensory experiences – with objects, with nature, being outdoors – become the foundation of thought, and of language. If you’ve got that great foundation, you’ve then got the foundation for literacy.”

How’s New Zealand doing?

So how does Suggate rate New Zealand’s success in giving our kids this most important of foundations?

“It depends. If the goal is reaching certain literacy goals at certain levels of childhood … then by and large they do meet these standards, with the exception of a small but significant percentage.

“But if you want to look at what is of long-term benefit to children, that’s a far harder question to answer. I personally think there could be fewer standards to meet earlier on, and more of a focus on interaction with the world.”

“No study has proven that children who are exposed to abstract reading instruction methods at five or even six years old have an advantage over children who start a bit later… so if you think about the time that goes into that, the question that has to be asked I think is, is that a waste of those precious formative years?”

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