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Suffer the little children to come unto school

Stuart Middleton


21 June 2017


The latest Education Review (Vol. 8, Issue 3, 2017) has a most interesting article from Dr John Boereboom addressing the issue raised in the recent Education Update Amendment Bill: What is the Best Age for Starting School?

The move towards cohort entry (that is when groups of around 5 year olds will all arrive at school on the same day rather than the current practice of starting on or close to their fifth birthday) must surely be questionable.

Boereboom notes that the policy will in all likelihood be popular and adopted by many primary schools. The perceived benefits to schools, the simplification of the enrolment process, the increased ease of planning programmes is put forward and I think he is right.  But…. Here we go again on change that is premised not on what is best for the student but what is best for grown-ups running the school.

The evidence for starting school early is fairly neutral but there is a bias in towardsthe negative side. So in reality there is no compelling reason for current practice to change.

It simply must be easier to introduce one child at a time into a group where a level of comfort with this strange place called a school has developed and where, in the best new entrant classrooms, there is a developed sense of “welcome into the whanau”, where buddy systems are possible and comfort can be offered to the new arrival appropriately by the more experienced class member. And what an opportunity for learning and development is in these experiences.

It must also be easier for a school to support the parent through that little wrench that we all feel when we leave our little ones on the other side of the school gate for the first time. It seems to signal the start of a process from which parents over time become increasingly estranged from the process of schooling. The group-shared anxieties of the change to cohort new-entrant enrolment are on both sides. Remember that when the flock is drafted both the ewes and the lambs are distressed.

But there might be an even more compelling reason to retain current practice. When a four-year-old talks excitedly about turning five, a key topic is about “going to school”. “And what will you do there?” Grandparent asks to which the little new student responds along the lines of “I am going to learn to read and write.” And we return the enthusiasm with a promise that of you come to school regularly, are a good little person and try your best, that is exactly what will happen. Of course, we find that quite a hard task but we give it a go. And admit it, you all have photos of your first day at school, and of your children’s first day at school, and your grandchildren’s first day at school – although this is probably taken in your lounge as the fashion parading of the new uniform is undertaken!

For one day, the day they turn five, a little person is the centre of attention and there is a clear focus on going to school that is probably not equalled in importance until that little person has become a big person and sets off to Graduation Day (18-20 years later) or Going-to- First Job-Day soon after that.

If we remove these rites-of-passage we take away experiences from children and adults that are of great importance.

There is a built-in contradiction in the discussion. As Dr Booreboom tell us: “Clearly the decision as to when to start school is unique.” There is nothing unique about turning up and rolling into school in a “mewling mob of frightened lambs.”

Young students can only succeed as individuals.


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