What's the right age to start school?
Children who are put in a classroom before they are ready may never catch up, writes Áilín Quinlan
Around now, some 70,000 young children around the country are enrolling for primary school – but the question is, are they ready for it?
Because a child is entitled to start in a junior-infants class anytime between their fourth and sixth birthday, there's a potential two-year age gap between pupils, which can result in significant differences in development, motor and social skills, and all-round maturity.
"You can have a child who was four on August 31. That child, who is just four years and a day, could be sitting beside a child whose sixth birthday was on September 1 and is two years older," says Liam Walsh, who has been headmaster of the co-ed Waterpark School in Waterford for the past 13 years.
"The younger child may not be as physically, emotionally or linguistically advanced, or as advanced as regards independence, play, gross or fine motor skills as the older child and the rate at which they progress is very different."
It's fine if all the children in a class are around the age of four – it's the mix of age and development levels which can cause problems, he says.
"The child who comes in at four is seriously disadvantaged if the majority of the class are aged five or five plus – that child cannot operate at the same rate as the five-year-old."
Waterpark NS, which has 240 pupils, tackles this potential problem by encouraging parents to start children nearer to five years of age than four.
"We'll take a child who is four before the end of May – but we ask parents to first consult with their pre-school to see if the child is actually ready for big school," says Liam.
"We don't take children whose fourth birthday falls in June, July or August.
"An immature child can be swamped by the physical size of the other children and the work that is being done," he explains.
"Subsequently, this child may need learning support because if they begin 'behind', they may never catch up, and we may end up putting learning resources their way in an attempt to bring them on to the same level.
"When they get to senior infants, they can still be struggling with the junior-infant curriculum – whereas the five-year-old is ready for the next step."
Mary Giles, who has spent a large proportion of her 30-year career teaching infants, believes that children who are barely four on entering junior infants may face a struggle to catch up.
"Generally speaking, when a child is barely four, they are more immature.
"They find it more difficult to look after their belongings, to do basic things like tie their coat or open their lunch-box and they're not as well able for the yard."
She believes that an extra six months, and time spent in pre-school, can make a big difference. "The four-year-old can be less able to cope than a child of four and a half who has gone to pre-school.
"It's very important that they have their year at pre-school and that they are at least four and a half."
Because most children go to pre-school now, she points out, the ones who don't can be at an immediate disadvantage – and they don't always catch up quickly. "After Christmas, you'll see a big difference between the child who was not really quite ready for school in September and those who were."
She says that the children who were well prepared for junior infants the previous September seem to "take off," and "blossom" as the new January term gets under way. But the ones who entered school less well-prepared will be struggling.
"The difference becomes more apparent at that stage," she says.
However, Mary Giles emphasises that home preparation for the child is huge. Teaching children to be a little self-sufficient, giving them a bit of responsibility and preparing them in a positive way for the excitement and the new experience of entering school are all very important factors in helping them become ready.
Meanwhile, the recession has not helped the maturity gap, according to Liam Walsh.
Even though every child is now entitled to a free year at playschool, some children may need a second year to allow them to mature sufficiently so that they are ready for 'big' school – but parents who are financially straitened may not be able to afford it.
"Some parents will want to get the child into school because they cannot afford to pay for a second year of pre-school – their whole reason for sending the child to school is financial – that's what we are up against.
He says that school entry should be based on a child's readiness – which explains a growing demand for the provision of a second year of government-provided pre-school.
Although the number of children starting school at age four is falling, they still constitute up to between 20pc and 25pc of the junior infant cohort, estimates Brendan McCabe, president of the Irish Primary Principals' Network, and headmaster of St Colmcille's School in Kells, Co Meath for almost 40 years.
Some children are ready for 'big school' at four years of age, depending on their maturity, he says, so it's not feasible to insist that all children start school from the age of five.
However, the lack of readiness in some junior infant entrants is definitely a problem – Brendan McCabe highlighted the issue in his recent address to the annual IPPN conference, calling upon the Department of Education to provide a second free year of playschool to those requiring a developmental "leg-up".
"Some children are being sent to school too young, or, more correctly, before they are sufficiently mature," he says.
They may be less able to concentrate, sit still or interact with other pupils in group activities. "There is a sizeable number at four years of age who are not ready," says Brendan.
"Sometimes this is caused by the lack of affordable pre-school facilities and the necessity for guardians, because of economic pressures, to get out into the workforce, thus leaving the school to act effectively as child minders."
The free government ECCE playschool year has been a great help to parents, particularly those who could not otherwise have afforded a pre-school for their children.
However, he says that more is needed.
"I would call on the Government to ensure that all pre-schools have fully trained staff and meet acceptable standards and to give those children who need it a second free year.
The presence of a pre-school attached to the all-girls inner city Holy Family Mercy junior primary school of which Agnes Brick is principal, has helped provide a junior infant intake which is generally aged around four and a half and upwards:
The school advises parents early on about its enrolment policy – many local parents in the school's hinterland of Waterford City fill in an enrolment form when their children are as young as one years old.
Although Holy Family believes the best age for entry to junior infants is from four and a half to five years old, Agnes also emphasises that age is not the only factor in determining how well a child will cope with the transition to primary school.
"The family environment is very important in determining how children will cope with school.
"They can come to school at age four well prepared – or at five years old, ill-prepared and at sea.
"Parents should be talking to them about school, preparing them, getting them excited about making new friends and giving them the stimulation they need."
Help your child with language development by talking to them and reading stories aloud to them, she suggests.
"The child who is prepared for school, both in terms of experience; is linguistically able to express themselves, and has had stories read to them will always do better.
"Age is only one factor."
How to tell if your child is ready
"Different children become ready for school at different times," says Aine Lynch of the National Parents Council.
If you feel that perhaps your child is not quite ready for big school, she says, seek advice from the primary school – and from the staff in your son or daughter's childcare group.
"Talk to your creche, preschool or Montessori school and get a sense from the staff there," she suggests.
"They see your child in a group setting and observe how they manage.
"A child does need to be ready for the primary school experience.
"There is more attention required and bigger groups so the child needs to have a certain preparedness.
"It's a good idea to talk to both the primary school and the childcare setting."
And don't forget to do your bit to help prepare your child – talking to your child and reading aloud all help with their intellectual and social development, say the experts.
Talking positively about the exciting new experiences that 'big school' will provide will also help to prepare a child for the transition.
'I sent my two youngest to school at five and they blossomed'
Waterford mother-of-five Lynda O'Shea experienced first-hand the difference between sending a child to school at age four and age five.
Lynda, whose children range in age from 11 to 23 years, sent her youngest son and daughter to school at age five, after starting the older three children at age four.
"I started three of them in school at the age of four and I felt that they struggled because they were not sufficiently mature," says Lynda, who is the spokesperson for the National Parents' Council Post Primary.
Looking back, she feels the work was probably a bit too advanced:
"I think I started them too early. They were not mature enough to start school at four.
"I think they'd have been better off if I had sent them around the age of five. I sent my youngest girl and youngest boy to school at five and they really blossomed."