Middle-class children outperform others before starting school

ESRI study highlights significant gaps in skills and wellbeing even at age of three

Children from middle-class families are more likely to outperform those from less well-off homes from before they even begin primary school, according to a major new study.

An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) analysis of how more than 9,000 children adjusted to primary school finds evidence of a significant gap in children’s language development as early as three years of age depending on their socio-economic background.

At age five, children from disadvantaged backgrounds had more negative attitudes towards school, more socio-emotional difficulties and poorer literacy and numeracy skills than those from other backgrounds.

The study also shows children from professional or managerial families are more likely to start school at a significantly older age than their less well-off counterparts


Being older on school entry tends to give a slight advantage to children in that they have better language skills and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.

The most common reasons given for deciding to defer a child’s school entry included a sense that the child was “too young” or was “not ready”.

Overall, parents have been opting to send their children to school at a later starting age over the past decade, although the introduction of the free pre-school years has accelerated this trend.

The proportion of four year olds in junior infants has dropped from 47 per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent in 2016-2017, according to the study.

Socio-economic background

Prof Emer Smyth, the report's author, said the development gap between children based on their socio-economic background was significant but not insurmountable.

“Even at the age of five, important differences are evident in children’s wellbeing and skills,” she said. “These findings are a concern, but they are not insurmountable.”

Prof Smyth pointed to findings which indicate the development gap narrows somewhat at senior infants for children in disadvantaged or Deis schools, indicating that targeted efforts to boost outcomes are working.

Overall, the report finds the vast majority of five year olds are positive about school, look forward to going to school and say good things about school.

The ESRI study, commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is based on information gathered as part of the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study of 9,000 children.

It examined children’s vocabulary skills, literacy and numeracy skills, as well as their attitudes to school, relationships with teachers and their socio-emotional skills.

The research found that only a small proportion (4-5 per cent) of children often complain or are upset about school. The study showed that children start school with different skills and capacities and some children face greater challenges.

The largest skills gap is between children with disabilities or special educational needs and their peers.

Vocabulary scores

In addition, boys have lower vocabulary scores and teachers report that boys are more likely than girls to have poorer literacy skills, negative attitudes towards school and greater socio-emotional difficulties.

The report recommends a number of steps to help children in the transition to primary, such as better information from pre-school staff on a child’s skills and challenges.

It also says increasing play-based activities could promote learning and engagement among young children. There is evidence that this declines in senior infants in many schools.

Promoting home learning activities in the pre-school years could also help to prepare children for school life. Activities, such as reading and creative play, are associated with a more successful adjustment to school.

In a statement, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment said it is planning to publish reporting templates for pre-school staff to help with the transition to primary education.

The findings will also feed into its ongoing work to redevelop the primary school curriculum.

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