State decides on school starting age

Tasmania, which currently has the oldest minimum compulsory starting age in Australia, has rejected a proposal to lower it.

The suggestion, led by the Tasmanian Government, also received support from the state’s principals association, which said lowering the school starting age from six years and six months to four years and six months would improve student engagement.

“Not only does play-based activity engage children – it provides opportunities for them to interact positively, productively and happily with people, things and ideas around them,” said TPA president, Malcolm Elliott in July.

However, the move was met with fierce opposition from the childcare sector, as well as many parents and teachers, who said that lowering the school starting age would jeopardise jobs and put too much stress on children.

However, Tasmania’s Education Minister, Jeremy Rockliff, said that under draft legislation to be tabled next month, parents will have the choice to enrol their child in compulsory schooling six months earlier, at four-and-a-half.

He added that Tasmanian parents will also have the choice of sending their children to kindergarten from the age of three-and-a-half when the change comes into effect in 2020.

The state’s government also plans to spend up to $4.9m a year on extra teacher assistants to help schools cope.

“While I acknowledge that prep year in many schools is predominantly play-based, it can be difficult to enable a play-based curriculum in a classroom with over 18 or 20 students with a single teacher,” Rockliff told the ABC.

Some prominent voices in education, including Dr David Whitebread, Cambridge University expert in the cognitive development of young children, say 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.

In July, Western Australia Primary Principals Association (WAPPA) president, Stephen Breen, told The Educator that he does not agree with the argument that lowering the starting age can improve student outcomes.

“The evidence is clear in this area. Informal play-based schooling, as well as intentional play based schooling, is needed for the prerequisites of learning,” he said.

“If politicians simply lower the starting age and ask educators to replicate the status-quo, as in say pre-primary schooling, it will be a disaster.”

However, Breen added that if the authorities lower the starting age and then provide a system where schools can engage in informal and formal play-based schooling then lowering the starting age “will have merit”.