Various factors influence when parents send children to school
Free pre-school year, awareness of child development and class sizes play major roles
Children in pre-schools are used to a teacher/pupil ratio of one to 11; at primary level, this leaps up to about one teacher for 28 pupils. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire
For years, the vast majority of parents were happy to send their offspring to “big school” at four years of age. However, the latest figures confirm a trend which is gathering pace. Almost three-quarters of junior infants, when measured on January 1st, 2017 were five years of age or older.
Historically, the age of junior infants is recorded in January. Under the rules for a new database, the school starting age was also recorded on September 30th, 2016. That found a roughly a 50:50 split between four- and five-year-olds.
It seems the introduction of the free pre-school year, as well as a greater awareness of child development, are key factors.
The age profile of junior infants has been growing older for more than 15 years. The introduction of the free pre-school year in 2007 accelerated the trend. The recent extension of the scheme to children aged between three and five is likely to speed up this trend further still.
Early years educators say parents are now getting feedback on their children’s development and school readiness in a way they didn’t previously.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation also points out that parents, in general, are making much more informed decisions about when to start their children in school and are basing it on the individual child.
While school readiness is important, there is no consensus on when the best starting age is. Deferring the start of school seems to be more common among middle-class families.
The longitudinal study, Growing Up in Ireland, found that while just over half of children born to low-income families in June 2008 started school in September 2012, then aged four years and four months, fewer than one in four children born the same month in families with the highest income levels did so.
Interestingly, a new report commissioned by the Department of Children also shows that early years educators are more likely to believe in later school starting times compared to primary teachers.
The same report also throws light on concerns among parents over large class sizes in primary schools, school culture, bullying and the level of teacher care and supervision.
For example, children in pre-schools are used to a strict teacher/pupil ratio of one to 11; at primary level, this leaps up to about one teacher for 28 pupils.
In addition, there are concerns among parents that children are being forced into a rigid and formal education system at too young an age.
“Whereas parents expressed the need for teachers to foster the child’s sense of wonder, curiosity and individuality, they expressed concern that the infant classroom tended to be formal and inflexible,” the department’s report found.
While there is a shift towards later starting times, most experts are wary of using “chronological age” as the sole criterion for when a child is ready for school. They say a child’s social and emotional readiness, as well as practical skills, are much more important than their age.