Lift school age to six to put students on more even footing,says education minister

Lifting the school starting age to the year a child turns six would reduce wide age gaps in classes and put students on a more even footing,NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell says.

The introduction of a pre-kindergarten year,announced by the government last month and set to be available to all children by 2030,“will be an opportunity to recalibrate” the school starting age in NSW,where the age differences in classrooms can stretch up to 18 months.

Laura Barnes said despite her daughter Imby being eligible to start kindergarten this year (she turned five on July 1),she decided to hold her back to start in 2023.

Laura Barnes said despite her daughter Imby being eligible to start kindergarten this year (she turned five on July 1),she decided to hold her back to start in 2023.Wolter Peeters

“My goal would be school the year you turn six,and universal pre-kindergarten the year you turn five, and then still that opportunity for four years of early childhood education before that,” Mitchell told a Centre for Independent Studies event on Tuesday.

Last month the state government announced the rollout ofan extra year of education – marked as one of the biggest education reforms in a generation – by offering five days a week of pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old. It will cost almost $6 billion over 10 years.

The government has begun consultation on the plan,which could see pre-school facilities added to schools and expanding existing community pre-schools and long daycare centres.

In NSW’s public school system,a child can begin kindy if they turn five before July 31,but they must start school in the year they turn six. Deciding when to send children to school has been long-debated among parents,and many private schools now nominate March 31 as their cut-off.

Twenty per cent of students started school at age four last year in NSW,down from 24 per cent in 2017. Another 77 per cent started when they were five and 3 per cent at six.

Mitchell said a concern raised frequently by teachers is the age span in kindergarten classrooms means children who are four-and-a-half are mixed with six-year-olds.

“A lot of parents will send their children early because they can,and overwhelmingly it’s not because they’re so bright and ready to go. It’s because it means they don’t have the extra cost of early childhood. This will be an opportunity to recalibrate that,in that you start kindergarten the year you turn six and pre-kindergarten the year you turn five,” Mitchell said.

“It is hard because if those kids aren’t quite ready,it’s hard for them to ever catch up and that’s just the honest reality that we’re dealing with in some of our kindergarten classrooms.”

Research shows affluent parents are more likely than disadvantaged parents,or those born overseas,to keep their child home for an extra year. A study of more than 100,000 NSW students found 26 per cent delayed starting school until the year they turned six,and families from wealthier suburbs are more likely to hold children back.

Laura Barnes said despite her daughter Imby being eligible to start kindergarten this year (she turned five on July 1),she decided to hold her back to start in 2023.

“She could have gone to school in January,but it’s just a personal preference to hold her back. I felt from a maturity level she wasn’t there,although looking back now maybe she could have started this year,” Barnes said.

“I feel like the preschools are trying to hold them back a bit longer. She is definitely getting that social and emotional development at pre-school.”

Ben Edwards,associate professor of child and youth development at Australian National University,said the practice of “academic red-shirting,where parents delay enrolment in primary school for a year after their child is first eligible,is a massive issue in NSW”.

“I haven’t seen the level of delayed enrolment anywhere else. Parents who live in wealthy parts of Sydney and from advantaged backgrounds can afford to have their kids stay out for longer. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to go to school when they are eligible,they don’t get the gift of time,” he said.

Mitchell said about half of the children in NSW do not do their four-year-old development check.

“That’s where you can pick up things around speech,vision around hearing behavioural issues or challenges. We’re missing a lot of that. There are still a lot of children who walk in the door on the first day of kindergarten,who the teachers haven’t seen and they’ve not done a transition.”

“They’re going to have that opportunity to have a full year of really being embedded in a learning environment before they start school.”

Australian Childcare Alliance CEO Chiang Lim said significant out-of-pocket childcare costs were a major concern.

“Parents are being exposed to more expensive gap fees,so there is a propensity to send children to school early because they can’t afford the fees,” he said.

“The pre-kindergarten plan is still eight years away and severely lacking in details. The school system doesn’t leverage the benefits of early childhood education enough,” Chiang said.

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Lucy Carroll is education editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a health reporter.

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