School: Through the ages
The decision on whether to send your children to school at the age of four or to wait until they have turned five can have a huge impact on the rest of their time in education
Some parents are coming to the stage when they will have to decide at what age to send their child to school. For many, it will be an easy decision, mainly based on what month the child was born. For others, it will be a very difficult decision, also based on what month the child was born.
Regardless of whether it will be easy or hard, it's a decision which could impact on the educational experience of your child, right up to Leaving Cert and beyond.
According to Mary Lewis, Research Associate at the Educational Research Centre, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, children in Ireland begin primary school when they are four or five years old, somewhat earlier than their peers in a number of other European countries.
"While the issue of when formal education should begin has been debated for many years in many countries, no major research studies have been conducted that can provide a definitive answer in this regard," she says.
"There is, however, a substantial body of work that reflects an increased understanding of the difficulties involved in attempting to determine school readiness."
Lewis says that schools using age alone as an entry standard may not be very useful from an educational point of view.
"Other differences between children regarding their gender and home background and whether or not English is their first language may make it difficult to achieve common learning targets in reading, writing and mathematics in the early years of school," she says.
"An optimal age for beginning school very much depends on the mix of family, school and individual circumstances that are experienced uniquely by each child."
Statistics from the Department of Education showed that last year, just under 50pc of children started school at age four. My youngest daughter, Ella, was one of them. She was four and nine months old when she started school last September.
Based on the fact that she was born in December, and often using the phrase 'she's been here before', it was an easy decision for myself and my husband to send her to school at four. Although, in saying that, it took her until after Christmas to settle in. We had tears most mornings at the school door, and she clung on to my hand for dear life.
It was pure separation anxiety, and I could see through the window that she was fine after about two minutes. She is well settled now, and very happy in school. I can't believe that she's almost finished junior infants.
Our middle daughter's birthday is the end of May. She was accepted into school at four, but we decided to hold her until five. I was at home with the children, so we weren't paying for childcare.
We did, however, pay for two years of playschool for each of them. 'What's the rush to start school?' we thought. 'She'll be in school long enough.' We wanted school to be a positive experience for Cliona, and for her to get the best out of it.
We didn't want her to struggle, even though she showed no early signs. We're sure now that we made the right decision. I'll never forget the morning she started school. She never even looked back to say goodbye. I was heartbroken. At age nine and now at the end of second class, she is adamant that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I have no doubt that, determined as she is, she'll get exactly what she wants.
John Carr, General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), acknowledges that all children are different and develop at a different rate. "Making the decision to start a child in primary school will therefore depend on the child," he says.
"Among the things parents will need to look at are independence, self-confidence and interaction with other children. Social skills are a key factor," says Carr.
"Gender may also be a factor. In general, girls seem to mature much earlier and therefore be ready for school before boys. Other factors could include the number of children in the family and experience of pre-school or early childhood education.
"There is no hard and fast rule about the right age to start school. In Ireland, children can start at four, most start between the ages of four and five. Children must be at school by age six," says Carr.
He says there are two key issues that need to be addressed. "In Ireland, promotion through the school system is on the basis of age. Therefore, in general terms, if a child starts out at the youngest or the eldest in a class group, they will remain the oldest or youngest until Leaving Cert. A way of taking account of the different rates at which children learn and develop," he says, "would be to have a middle-infants class in schools so that if children needed a three year infant cycle they could avail of it.
"The second issue is class sizes, where all the experts agree that smaller classes benefit young children."
According to Carr, children often go from a childcare centre, where the ratio is one carer to eight children, to a primary classroom where there can be up to 35 children to one teacher.
"These class sizes are among the highest in Europe," he claims.
It appears that allowing our children to start earlier in school than other European countries, together with providing larger class sizes, puts them at a disadvantage where childhood education is concerned.
Johnny McCarthy has been a primary school teacher for the last 20 years. He says that the school curriculum is not tailored specifically to either four or five year olds. However, in the school where he teaches in Cork, they have a policy that children born after February/March, should not be sent to school at age four.
Johnny and his wife Maria, who is also a primary school teacher, held their two girls until age five before starting them in school.
"Keeping a child back in school is not done lightly," he says. "Out of 470 pupils in our school, there is an average of one kept back a year. From my experience, the parent would generally approach the school. However, the younger a child stays back the better. This will benefit them more socially.
"First class is probably the best class for a child to stay back," he says, "before they have made their First Holy Communion, and before they establish a fixed set of friends. Schools in general, together with the Department of Education, don't recommend keeping a child back, as it can damage their self-esteem."
Therefore, it's really important that parents ensure that their child is really ready to start school.
Mai Ralph is one parent who regrets sending her son, Sean, to school at four. He is starting secondary school in September, at age 12, and Mai feels very strongly about the fact that he is too young. Although his birthday is in March, he's still the fourth youngest in his class.
"There's a two-year gap between the youngest and the oldest boy in the class. Some of the boys will be 14 within the first few months of starting secondary school," says Mai. The older boys are talking about things that I don't want Sean talking about. A gap of two years is huge where maturity and social gatherings are concerned."
Mai says she's lucky that Sean is not at a disadvantage academically. Although she would have liked to have kept him back in third, fourth, fifth or sixth class, she was advised against it by the school.
"The Department of Education also said it was the wrong thing to do," she says. "As Sean is a child that is 'peer-led', ie, very influenced by his friends, the department said that holding him back could destroy him if he didn't click with a new group of friends."
Mai has a daughter, Audrey, due to start school this September. She will be five in June, and Mai and her husband, Pat, made a conscious decision this time around not to send her at four.
Mai feels that one of the main reasons why parents send their children to school at four, knowing that they're not ready, is financial pressure. "However, the new government scheme to give a free pre-school year from next January should alleviate that pressure and allow parents to delay starting their children until five if they're not ready," she says.
Mai is still not ruling out keeping her son back a year in secondary school if he needs it. There is no doubt that starting Sean at four instead of five seems to be an ongoing dilemma for his parents right throughout his school years.
Susan Cooley's son Graham started school at five. He is currently sitting his Leaving Cert and will be 19 in August. "Graham is well equipped for life at this stage," says Susan. "He feels he's ready for the big bad world. He's confident enough to be able to deal with whatever situation he comes across."
Susan and her husband, Ivor, have five children. Out of the five, just one, Ryan, started school at four. Susan regrets this now, and hopes that transition year will make up for that. "He wouldn't be as mature or as confident to deal with certain situations. He turned 13 in April of this year. He's just finishing first year and is the youngest in his class."
In contrast, Gillian Gleeson has no regrets about sending two of her five children to school when they just turned four. Emma's birthday is in May and Eve's birthday is the end of June.
"School suited them very well," says Gillian. "They both went to Montessori, and when I asked their teacher if they were ready at four, she said they would be well able for school, socially and academically. The teacher advised me against holding Eve, in particular, another year in Montessori, as she would have been bored.
"Eve was a very early reader, and could read even before starting school. She was reading Harry Potter in senior infants. It took a good while for the others in her class to catch up."
Emma is 14 now and just finished second year, and Eve will be 12 soon, and is at the end of sixth class.
"Both girls are very bright," says Gillian, "and have had no issues socially, even though they have very different personalities. It depends on your child," says Gillian.
With so many arguments for and against sending your child to school at four or not, it's perhaps also worth bearing in mind that some education experts agree that delaying the start of school brings no lasting benefits.
"In the short term, people notice that their kid knows more colours than another little boy," says Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. "But in the long term, that all washes out."
I think the key thing to remember is that every child is unique, in the same way that every family situation is different. You know your child more than anyone else. Trust your own instincts.
For further information on the pre-school year, check the website for the Office of the Minister for Children, www.omcya.ie. Parents should also check with their own childcare provider