Every year, thousands of Australian parents face a difficult decision: should they send their child to school or delay until the following year?
For example, in New South Wales, for example, children born January to July can start school aged 4½ to 5 years or delay a year and start aged 5½ to 6 years. For NSW children born August to December, this choice isn’t available – these kids almost always start school in the year after their fifth birthday, barring special circumstances.
However, a new study of more than 100,000 children by a research team, including academics from UNSW, Australian National University, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, University of Melbourne, and the Australian Catholic University (ACU), could now make this decision easier.
According to the researchers, children who start school later are more ready for the classroom than their younger peers.
Not only is the study the largest ever to examine who delays starting school in NSW, and how a child’s age when they start school relates to their ‘readiness’ in terms of development, it is also the first time that the magnitude of this relationship has been quantified in the Australian context.
Of all Australian states and territories, NSW topped the nation when it comes to holding off on sending their child to school until a later age. One-quarter of children in NSW delayed school entry in 2009 and 2012, with geographic and social variation in the tendency to delay.
“What the data really show us is that, on average, children who start school in the year they turn six are more likely to have developed the skills and competencies needed to thrive in a formal learning environment, compared with their younger peers who start school in the year they turn five,” Lead author, Dr Mark Hanly at UNSW Medicine’s Centre for Big Data Research in Health, said.
To get a clearer idea of what the situation looks like in Australia’s most populous state, the researchers used linked administrative data for 104,356 children who started at a NSW Public School in 2009 or 2012.
Their aim was to identify child, family and area characteristics associated with delayed entry, and to explore the relationship between school starting age and five domains of child development, measured using the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) in the first year of school.
The team found that one in four children delayed school entry – almost half of the January-July born children who were eligible to do so. There were striking geographical and social variation in the families who opted to delay.
“Boys, younger children, and children from relatively advantaged families and neighbourhoods – particularly in Sydney – were more likely to delay,” study director Dr Kathleen Falster, of UNSW and the ANU, said.
“This might be because parents and teachers believe that boys and younger children are often less school-ready – but delaying school entry can come at an additional cost for families, especially if the alternative is expensive childcare.”
The researchers also quantified the relationship between school starting age and early childhood development and found a strong link between age and developmental skills in the first year of school.
Children born August to December have no choice about when to start school in NSW, so new starters with these birth dates are ideal to study how age is linked to development.
“When we compared their developmental data there was a clear trend: outcomes improved with each additional month of age,” Dr Hanly, said.
“Month-on-month these differences are quite small, there’s not a big gap between August-born children and September-born children, for example. However, accumulated over a full year, these differences add up, and unsurprisingly there is quite a large development gap between 4½ year-olds and 6-year-olds.”
However, there’s unknown long-term consequences of school starting age policies, and a more solid evidence base is needed, the researchers cautioned.
“For example, raising the school starting age may place added pressure on families to provide preschool care, or restrict work-force participation for parents,” Associate professor Ben Edwards from the Australian National University (ANU) said.
“A later start to school may also have long-run effects on the age that young adults enter the workforce.”
Dr Hanly said more longitudinal research is needed on the potential for initial age-related differences to impact later school outcomes.
“While some earlier studies have suggested academic gaps closed between younger and older children after first grade, the long-term implications just aren’t clear yet,” he said.