PARENTS are sending some children to school when they are not ready for it, according to primary principals.
Teachers end up acting as childminders to pupils who are not mature enough to participate in school life, they say.
Although increasing numbers of parents are waiting until children are five to start them in school, many junior infant pupils are ill-equipped for the experience.
It is not so much a question of age, as readiness for school, said Brendan McCabe, president of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN).
"Some children are being sent to school too young, or, more correctly, before they are sufficiently mature," he said in his keynote address to the IPPN annual conference.
Mr McCabe said some children were ready for school at four, while others may still not be ready at five.
Children who were not ready for school had difficulties sustaining their concentration and had a major problem with socialisation, which could turn it into a negative and traumatic experience, he said.
Mr McCabe said a lot of teachers of infant classes with 30 pupils would say that 27 or 28 were fine, but two or three were struggling and it was questionable as to whether they would ever catch up.
He said most parents had a sense of their children's maturity from how they interacted with others in a social setting – whether they were capable of looking outside themselves and socialising with other children.
Difficulties with skills such as buttoning a coat could be a sign of a child's development, but a much more important indicator was how well they interacted with others, he said.
Even though parents would judge their child's maturity, some were forced to send them to school early because of a lack of affordable pre-school childcare and economic pressures that forced two parents to work.
This effectively left the school acting as child minder, said Mr McCabe, who is principal at St Colmcille's boys' primary school Kells, Co Meath.
He said that the provision of a year's free pre-school, under the Early Childhood Care and Education scheme, had been a great help. But, Mr McCabe said some children needed a second free ECCE year and there was also a need to ensure that all pre-schools met acceptable standards and had fully trained staff.
The IPPN president also challenged the expectation that the school system should hold the solution to a plethora of the problems in Irish society and that "schools will fix" problems such as drug-taking, obesity and bullying.
"In reading newspapers or in listening to political commentary, one could easily be led to the belief that schools can respond to all changes and lead the charge to cure all of society's ills," he said.
He said that expecting schools to solve problems could allow parents and state agencies to shirk their duties and it was time they too stepped up to the plate.
The IPPN president also dealt with the issue of "curriculum overload" and likened primary schools trying to fit in all 11 subjects to trying to fit a quart into a pint jug.
He referred to the recently introduced strategy to improve literacy and numeracy but said if more emphasis was to be given to these areas with no decrease in the overall number of subjects, schools needed clear guidance on the subjects from which time should be taken.
Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor