One of the more challenging choices a parent faces is trying to determine when their child is ready for school.
This decision can be quite agonising for families as we now have a greater understanding of the impact on a child’s learning throughout the course of their education if they are not ready for the challenge from the beginning.
Under the current regime, there is a lack of uniformity in child education policy across the country because the states and territories set their own.
In NSW children can start school at four-and-a-half-years, whereas in Tasmania children have to be five years and one month before they can commence.
That’s why the Australian Childcare Alliance is calling for a nationally coordinated approach to educational policy so that a uniform minimum age applies to students starting school, at an age childhood experts agree is a reasonable base level.
This would take the onus off parents. It would also empower teachers to more successfully tailor lessons to a wider group of students within a smaller age band.
Families make these discretionary decisions based on their early childhood educator’s feedback, their own observations of their child’s behaviour, affordability of school fees, and research from child development experts.
Those working in the early learning sector are aware that many families believe their state’s minimum school starting age is too young. Consequently, they hold back their child to give them an additional year of preschool.
This view is confirmed in a study of more than 100,000 NSW kindergarten children published in the academic journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, which found that half of the parents delayed their child’s schooling if they turned five between January and July.
Delaying school entry creates an age gap - sometimes up to two years among the children in their first year. This gap persists throughout their schooling life, which has implications for teachers in engaging students with vastly different cognitive and social skills.
The absence of a nationally consistent school starting age means that funding and programs for the two years before school do not go far enough because they have to cover such wide variances in age and development milestones.
This impedes the measurement of learning outcomes to compare against global data on educational achievement.
We urge the federal, state and territory governments to tackle these anomalies and introduce greater uniformity.
A review of Australia’s school starting age at the federal level is overdue and could be achieved with the support of all governments, taking into account lessons from other countries that have had success with their programs and use them as policy benchmarks.
We believe there should be a national requirement that children must be at least five years of age by January 1 in their first year of formal schooling to narrow the age discrepancy in prep classes and set up students for strong educational outcomes.
Paul Mondo is the national president of the Australian Childcare Alliance
Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 May 2019