EDUCATION: To start or not to start? The BIG Prep debate…

19 November 2017

“My son was right on the cut-off date for starting school so I could choose whether to send him, or hold him back for a year. I sent him to school, mainly because I had to return to work. But I wish I hadn’t. He is now in Year 3 and falling behind with English and Maths. I am considering hiring a tutor to give him some extra help and I can’t help but think that he might not have needed this if only I’d held him back for another year.”

Sunshine Coast mum Stacey* is certainly not alone in having to make one of the most important decisions in a child’s life – when to send them to school. And the age at which children start school can have a big impact on how well they perform in the long term, according to some education experts.

Steve Biddulph, a parent educator and retired psychologist, says you cannot determine when a child is ready to start school by their age alone. “Starting formal schooling is about readiness,” he says on his website, “In fact, age is a very poor guide to this, and it is far better to wait until a child shows individual ability to move up. Until this time, kindergarten is the best place for them to learn the most. The effects of being older are very long term – Frederickson and Ockert (2005) found that ‘children who were older when they commenced school performed better in all subjects at Year 9 and were more likely to go on to complete secondary schooling’.”

And it’s not just readiness for learning and the benefits to their education in the long term that needs to be considered. There are also major health concerns associated with sending children to school too early, according to author, educator and parenting specialist Maggie Dent. She is an advocate for delaying formal learning in Australia until the age of seven, rather than introducing it at age five, like most schools do now.

In her submission to the education minister, Stop stealing childhood in the name of education: A plea to ask WHY?, Maggie says: “The distress I hear of children struggling — with anxiety, serious behavioural concerns, mental health including depression in children as young as four, aggressive or violent behaviour — and a deep sadness in both parents and children as children have been unable to have a childhood with freedom, with moments of joy and delight, in the company of passionate experienced educators, is quite frankly heartbreaking for me.

“It staggers me to see the push down towards formalised learning that is happening across Australia when there is absolutely no evidence or research that validates that this can have a positive influence on young children’s lives.”

Maggie says the introduction of formal learning, such as phonics and grammar, in Prep goes against the government’s Early Years Learning Framework. This calls for an entirely play-based curriculum until the age of five, however some children are still four when they start Prep (read more at

And it’s not just Australian children that are feeling the pressure. In England, children start the formal learning of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. David Whitebread, a researcher from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, says this might be too early for some children and play is an important part of learning.

“There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling,” he says. “These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies. Anthropological studies of children’s play in extant hunter-gatherer societies, and evolutionary psychology studies of play in the young of other mammalian species, have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers.

“Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

And although it is hoped that the introduction of formal literacy learning can improve reading outcomes for children, David says this isn’t always the case: “Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages five and seven. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at five developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.”

To find out more about the research, visit

According to, around 14.5% of Australian parents choose delayed entry for their children, compared to around 5% of parents in the US. But, not all parents think it’s best for their children to be held back.

Sunshine Coast mum Louise* says: “Chloe*, aged four, is totally ready for prep – she passed the school readiness test with flying colours and is super-excited to go. But when I mention it to other parents at Kindy that I'm thinking sending her at four-and-a-half, I get such critical comments, like I'm setting her up for failure and if I want her to really achieve at school, I should hold her back and give her that extra head start. I don't want to put her through several years of boredom, just because everyone else is holding back!”

Indeed, some argue that there are advantages to starting school at an earlier age. Black, Devereux and Salvanes (2008) state that the benefits of starting school younger could include:

  • Finishing school at a younger age, so they have more time to “earn returns on their investment in education”.
  • Children learning more at school than at home, which could be beneficial.
  • Parents of younger children might help them more with their studies, compared with those with older children in the same year.

Read more here.

Whatever decision you make, and however much research you do, keep in mind that you know your child and their capabilities better than anyone else.

What do you think? Should children be held back and start school later, or is your four-year-old ready for school?

*names changed


Written by

Kerry White

Kerry is the Senior Writer for Kids on the Coast and Kids in the City. Kerry moved to Australia from England in 2013 with her husband and two daughters. She worked as a sub-editor in London for seven years before she had her girls. She now calls the Sunshine Coast her home and is making the most of its glorious weather and beaches. She enjoys baking, especially when she has a glass of wine in hand, and is a part-time Psychology, Criminology and Justice student. She also shares her home with two cats and her daughters' imaginary dogs.

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