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Suffer little child to come unto school


I was more than a little shocked to learn the other day that an experiment has started by which little ones at the age of five years are starting school at designated times rather than on their fifth birthday as has been the custom for well over a hundred years. 

This is crazy! The custom and practice of starting school on your fifth birthday has served the country well and, as Voltaire might have commented: “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”

No argument to change has been put forward other than the convenience of the adults that work in the school system.

Development psychology has no strong argument that would promote the need for a cohort start rather than the staggered start of the birthday custom.

There is no evidence that starting on your fifth birthday is detrimental to progress.

All in all it is one of those things that simply catch on because in the absence of other ideas doing something about student achievement in the early school years seems better than doing nothing.

Whether a five year old is “ready” for school is largely the result of the experiences the child has in the environment in which they are raised. The uncritical acceptance of any pre-school experience rather than none as being enough cannot be sustained. Students are stretching out in their development right from birth. And research has shown over the years that young children have five universal needs:


  •          the benefits of sound nutrition, good clothing and shelter, economic security preventative physical and mental health services and appropriate education experiences;
  •          strong nurturing relationships among family, community and each other;
  •          opportunities to develop skills and talents and alongside this early identification of and response to specific and individual learning needs;
  •          a safe environment free of violence and discrimination;
  •          a community that heals our little ones when they are damaged through omission or harmed through neglect or violence.


Now this takes a huge community effort – it can’t be achieved by people working on their own, cope with varying degrees of pressure and disadvantage and it starts when little ones are born and doesn’t stop for many years. But still we continue to surround the 0-5 and early schooling with claims that are largely myths. Learning happens only in school – myth. There is within each child a condition of “readiness”[1] – myth. Whatever “readiness” is, it can be measured and be measured easily – myth. Give students a little more time and they will come right – myth. Children are ready for school when they can sit quietly at a desk and listen – myth. 

The real danger that lies in the shift to a five-year-old cohort starting at two designated dates in a school year is simply to load the burden of a feature that thwarts student progress through schooling – the lock-step age related cohort that underpins the organization of schools. The fact that five year olds reflect a wide range of development, of skills and or preparedness is not something peculiar to five year olds. It is true also of most students.

But still the machine grinds on. Students present themselves on the parade ground on a specific day to be marshalled into little pedagogic platoons to be marched off to do whatever daily orders demand. “Today we have the naming of parts…”

The challenge to schools is to introduce increased flexibility so that students can move at a pace that reflects their needs and progress. Teachers have to cope with up to thirty students each at their own particular spot in the educational journey. To think otherwise is simply a little self-delusion practiced in order to maintain current structures.

To now introduce that one size fits all over the top of a group of five year olds beggars belief. When a five year old started school on or near their birthday they were special, welcomed into school by excellent teachers who eased the experience into something that was generally exciting and smooth. Where there was upset it was handled with sensitivity. Imagine a teacher coping with a room full of such little lambs bleating, nervous, disoriented.

It seems cruel to me! Is this yet another change that will catch on for no obvious reason?

[1]A useful discussion of readiness to start school can be found in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, High, Pamela C. (2008)

Published inPrimary Education

One Comment

  1. Hi Stuart – the topic on NE intakes is a very good read and very topical in my view. The issue of NE intake entry-points to starting school in NZ is an interesting but vexing one. The New Zealand context has always been that it has become traditional that they tend to start on their 5th birthday. Yet the law in NZ around the compulsory schooling sector merely says they cannot enrol before they are 5 but must be enrolled by the time they are 6 years old. I suspect this has been encouraged by Kindergartens in an era when they had waiting lists and needed the space to enrol new pre-schoolers. Now that the ECE sector has become reorganised and private providers now equal/outnumber kindergartens, this factor is now a quite a different one than it once was. However we are still left with the ‘tradition’ of the enrolment at school on the day after their 5th birthday. This is a dilemma that NZ schools have been grappling with for a very long time. Around the world there are varying viewpoints, but no-one to my knowledge allows uncontrolled entry on the 5th birthday as we do. In Australia for example depending on the particular state you live in, intakes can be either once or twice only in a year. Victoria is the one with which I am most familiar with and they only have intakes once per year. So if a child misses the cut off by one or more days, it is another calendar year before they can enter. seems ludicrous really however I imagine it would be good for business if you were a private ECE provider!
    Whilst I would tend to agree with most of what you have said in this article, but in the context of a very large primary school such as ours, I might well disagree to some degree. I think in smaller schools where there might only be 15-20 staring in a given year, what you say is probably quite valid. However it is quite a different beast when you have 70-80+ NE’s starting through out the year, as we do. In my opinion as the principal of a very large primary school of 800 students, there is a valid argument for having perhaps four intakes per year, set at the beginning of each term. I think only one or two intake points in a year for big schools could cause more problems than it solves, especially around the issue of having an entire class all at the exact same point of starting completely from scratch around the routines of school. An entire class full of students in this position would stretch most teachers beyond what they might be able to manage purposefully. Four intakes, at the beginning of each term could help spread the load and allow schools time to prepare properly for these students and their very special needs as 5 year olds new to school.

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