School Starting Age in Northern Ireland – Are We Out of Step with Best Practice Elsewhere?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 March 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; School Starting Age

A bill which will allow parents more flexibility in deciding when their child starts school has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. This follows a long campaign and subsequent consultation by The Department of Education which showed high levels of support for more flexibility in the school starting age rules here.  

Up to now, pupils who turn four on or before 1 July each year have been expected to begin primary school the following September. The change will allow children born between April and July to defer entry until after their fifth birthday.  This decision will come as a big relief to parents who have felt that their child would be disadvantaged in the long term to be grouped in a class with children virtually a year older. The problem has been that these “early birthday” children and babies born prematurely sometimes have never recovered parity of achievement with peers and have carried this disadvantage with them throughout their school careers. The legislation was fast-tracked after the collapse of the NI Executive and it will now go forward for royal assent.

The final stage of the bill reached the assembly floor through accelerated passage which allows a new bill to be passed quickly if it commands cross-community support. In the end, the bill passed on Monday with an oral vote without any amendments. The change in the law however will still mean that Northern Ireland has among the youngest primary school starting ages in Europe.
School starting age bill passed by MLAs - BBC News

The wider picture from European Commission research is that is that in around 30 other countries including Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Spain and France, children do not start formal primary education until they are aged six or even seven. In Finland, where the education system is much praised for high achievement levels, children do not formally start primary school until they are seven. An additional important caveat however is that in those places most children go to some form of pre-school before school entry

So where did the starting age of 5 come from?  The compulsory school starting age in England became law with the 1870 Education Act;  The main reasons the age of five was settled upon included protecting children from exploitation at home and unhealthy conditions in the streets and  adding to the available workforce, as an earlier starting age allowed children to begin working lives sooner. The compulsory starting age actually had little-or-nothing to do with children’s learning and development. School starting ages do not only differ by country, but can also differ by the type of school the children attend. Although children start school at age five in England, some independent schools choose to delay more formal education until much later, including Steiner Schools.

 The Steiner education programme holds the underlying principle of providing an “unhurried and creative learning environment” for children of all abilities, faiths and backgrounds. The goal of these schools is to help children between the ages of 3 and 18 find joy through learning, and develop their physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual sense of self through a wide variety of creative and academic classes.
What is the best age for children to start school? | Class People.

The arguments in favour of starting school earlier are equally well researched and rehearsed. They include the assertion that children learn more effectively at school than they do at home particularly when it comes to reading, writing, and maths. Our experiences of home learning during the pandemic would certainly bear this point out. A strong argument is also made that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from an early start in school in terms of boosting their achievement levels. It is claimed that children who start school earlier develop a higher IQ at the age of 18 than those who start later, scoring better on Literacy and Maths assessments.

There is however the strong counter claim that this assertion may not factor in the age range in a given class and that older children in the class may do better simply because they are chronologically older anyway. Equally there is a strong body of opinion which discounts research showing higher earning power in later life for early school starters. Many studies show that any initial difference ultimately levels out.

Then there is the socialisation argument that children who start school earlier are then sooner in an environment with other children which allows them to develop social skills such as sharing, kindness and thoughtfulness, consideration and communication among others more quickly, thus preparing them better for later life and work. In addition it is suggested that children who start school earlier develop a greater sense of independence earlier standing them in good stead for life as a confident, effective member of society. It is probably impossible to measure this factor effectively, but the Finnish approach of providing high quality pre-school experiences would surely compensate for any loss of mainstream school socialisation given that children will be in a peer group setting as well.

Here in Northern Ireland the big picture for most children will remain unchanged but campaigners for the discretion for flexibility are delighted. Mark Langhammer, Regional Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is a pragmatic measure that will radically improve the lives of the small number of children and parents who will avail of it....  congratulations are due to Minister McIlveen for pushing this over the line.”

Alison McNulty, CEO of Tiny Life, one of the leading campaigning groups added: “We are delighted that this Bill has passed through the Assembly today. The option to defer starting school will significantly impact on the many premature babies who are born too soon and simply not ready physically or emotionally ready to go to school.”
Campaigners delighted as bill on flexible school starting age in Northern Ireland becomes law -

So although this change will not radically alter the school starting age, at least the children who would potentially be most disadvantaged will be able to defer and start later. It remains a reality however that we are out of step with most of our European neighbours including Ireland, who favour 6 as a starting age. We would have to accept that there would be big implications for nursery education provision and indeed return to work for parents caring for pre- school children at home were we to follow suit.

This article is correct at 15/03/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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