Children increasingly over five starting primary school

Free preschool year key factor behind older age of junior infants, according to experts

Parents are increasingly waiting until their children turn five before starting primary school, new figures show.

The introduction and expansion of the free preschool year is a key factor behind the older age profile of junior infants, say experts.

The shift in starting ages means postprimary students in future years will increasingly be 19 or even 20 years of age when they complete their Leaving Cert .

Overall, there has been a dramatic change in the age profile of junior infants, with the proportion of five-year-olds climbing from 52 per cent to 72 per cent between 2000 and 2017, the figures show.


By contrast, the proportion of four-year-olds fell from 47 per cent to 27 per cent over the same period, based on data collected on January 1st each year.

There is also evidence to show the trend is accelerating with the recent extension of the early childhood care and education scheme. Children may now avail of the free preschool scheme from the ages of three up to 5½.

Mounting debate

The figures come at a time of mounting debate over the best age for children to begin formal education.

The issue is significant because research links school readiness to future academic achievement, employment and behaviour.

Under school-enrolment laws, children in Ireland may be enrolled at primary school from the age of four years, and must start formal education by the age of six.

Ireland differs from the majority of European countries, where most children are not admitted to school until they reach six years of age or older.

In Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden, which rank highly for both academic achievement and child wellbeing, primary school starts at the age of seven.

A new report commissioned by the Department of Children on school readiness shows concerns among parents over issues such as large class sizes in primary schools, school culture and bullying.

The report, authored by academics at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and Dublin Institute of Technology, also reveals sharply divergent views between early years educators and junior infant teachers over school readiness.

‘Too late’

Teachers in primary schools were significantly more likely to regard a school starting age of six years as “too late” (49 per cent); the comparable figure for the early years group was 21 per cent.

In a similar vein, educators in the early years group (44 per cent ) were significantly more likely to regard a starting age of six years as “about right”. The comparable figure for the primary school group was 16 per cent.

Early years educators were also more likely to give higher rankings to skills such as children’s ability to separate from parents, their ability to empathise, and their ability to be part of a group.

The report recommends that child-led criteria rather than chronological age should be the key factors in school starting times.

It also says consideration should be given to reducing junior infant class sizes to a maximum of 20 pupils per class, with a view to moving towards the maximum grouping that applies to preschool settings (one teacher per 11 children).

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent