There are calls for federal leaders to implement a nationally consistent school starting age for children.
The call follows a major study of more than 100,000 NSW Kindergarten children which was recently published in academic journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
The study led by Dr Mark Hanly at UNSW Medicine’s Centre for Big Data Research in Health, looked at student data from 2009 and 2012. It found that if parents were able to choose whether to send or delay – if their child turned five between January and July – half decided to delay.
Currently, the starting age for school children varies depending on which state or territory they live. In NSW, children can start school at 4 ½ years old, whereas in Tasmania children have to be 5 years and 1 month old before they can commence school.
Paul Mondo, national president of the Australian Childcare Alliance (ACA) said it seems “extraordinary” that in 2019 there exists four different minimum school starting ages across the states and territories.
“Families delaying school entry creates a huge age gap among the children in their first year of school, and this age gap remains throughout their whole school journey. This situation is exacerbated in those states where children can start younger,” Mondo said.
“Without a nationally consistent school starting age, it is extremely difficult [both in a practical and pedagogical sense] to implement funding and programs for the two years before school given the enormous variances in age and development milestones that the programs and funding would apply to.”
ACA is calling for all sides of federal politics to support a national requirement that children must be at least 5 years of age by 1 January in their first year of formal schooling.
Surveys by the South Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) and the Australian Education Union (AEU) have suggested that even four-year-olds lack basic school-ready skills.
Other research about the impacts of school starting age in countries such as the US and UK have produced some alarming findings.
Dr David Whitebread, Cambridge University expert in the cognitive development of young children, says the current starting age for compulsory schooling in most states of six years and six months is too young.
“The overwhelming evidence suggests that five is simply too young to start formal learning. Children should be engaged in informal play-based learning until the age of about seven,” Dr Whitebread said.
Last year, a US study published by Harvard Medical School researchers in The New England Journal of Medicine found that kids who go to school early are 34% more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis and treatment compared to their older classmates.
In a statement, the study’s lead author, Timothy Layton, assistant professor of health care policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, shed some light on the ramifications of this.
“Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being over-diagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school,” he said.