How young is too young for primary school?

Steph Nash

The age debate for primary school enrolment is a contentious issue facing many Australian parents. How young is too young for a child to start school? The minimum age varies all over the states, with the NSW minimum being 4 and-a-half years. By law, children must be enrolled in school by their sixth birthday, meaning that at most, the ages of children in any one classroom can differ by a maximum of 1 and-a-half years.

Norm Hart from the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA), is aiming to bridge this age gap. With the minimum enrolment age differing across the states, and some states allowing special conditions for early enrolment, children that move interstate may need to repeat a year of school to satisfy national guidelines. To help prevent this, the APPA are calling for a national minimum enrolment age across all states and territories, with the organisation’s preferred minimum being five-and-a-half years old.

APPA believes a nationally consistent school starting age, based on evidence from across the country, would be good for Australian children,” Hart said. “The age of the child is an indicator of school readiness. Six months is a significant portion of the life of a four year old child … Many parents decide to delay school enrollment so their children have the opportunity to maximise readiness in all domains. Teachers are able to focus on formal lessons earlier in the school year when children come to school with the physical, social and emotional skills necessary for formal classroom activities.”

Together with online group, North Shore Mums, Sydney Observer released a Facebook post asking local mothers what they thought was the right age to enrol a child in primary school. The idea of social maturity, and concern over the potential year-and-a-half age gap between students, showed to be a common point of contention among local parents.

Fiona Mackay said, “The biggest issue in NSW is that they should have a fixed 12 month window so you don’t get the issue of kids being more than 12 months different in age in any one class. [Certain] exceptions should be accepted.”

Teacher, Cassie Pethybridge, concurred. “I’m a primary school teacher and have taught a kindergarten class where two students were 18 months apart in age. The differences academically were minor, the differences socially and emotionally were HUGE! Starting age should either be the calendar year that children turn five, OR the calendar year they turn six,” she said.

The Daily Telegraph released an article last month claiming that many parents in the state are enrolling their children early to avoid the soaring costs of child care. Bruce McDougall from the Telegraph wrote, “Some financially strapped parents even try to enrol their children before they reach legal age, the Saturday Telegraph has learned”.

This may not necessarily be the case. Dr Ben Edwards, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, has called this information misleading, stating that the Daily Telegraph’s claims fail to acknowledge the research available in this area.

According to national data, children aren’t being sent to school early at all,” he said. “It is, in fact, the reverse. In 2005, NSW had the highest rates of delayed entry. The rate of delayed entry in NSW was 31 per cent, which compares to the national average of only 14.5 per cent.”

Edwards said that by comparison, rates of early enrolment are so low that it can be considered negligible information. Despite this, he still maintains that the entry age for enrolment remains a contentious topic in Australia, with mixed views shared across the community.

Choosing an appropriate age for primary school enrolment is a decision that parents agonise over,” he said. “We always get a lot of queries from parents. We say that it’s a personal choice, and that it depends on the child and where they’re up to.”