School Readiness: Minimum Age Band by Sangeeta Doraiswami & Saroj Thapa


There is broad diversity in the way different countries–and cultures–approach the entry point into formal education for children. The most important of these differences is the age at which enrolment is considered essential: many countries believe 5 year-olds are ready for schooling; some like India set 6 years as an appropriate threshold. Others like Finland pick an even later benchmark, at 7 years.

Broadly, several studies suggest that there may be a direct correlation between poor performance and earlier entry into formal education. A study in the UK by the National Foundation for Educational Research entitled The influence of relative age on learner attainment and development makes this point based on empirical evidence from 18 different countries. In short, it suggests that children who started earlier tended to perform worse, and were more often subject to retention in the same grade or suspected of learning disabilities than those who entered into formal schooling earlier. The trendline of studies elsewhere also seems to suggest that societies base their judgment of the most appropriate age for entry into formal schooling upon developmental readiness among children, and their ability to sustain what is by any assessment, a sharp change from the relatively unstructured period of early years before formal schooling starts.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that no major country or educational system seems to deem it necessary to ascribe reasoning for the decision to pick a particular age to start schooling. A related, and perhaps prior condition to consider is with regard to the question of preparing for entry into formal schooling and whether such preparatory studies and systems can be considered organized education. In this case, the question that really should be asked with regard to pre-school or play school systems is not how old the children are when they are enrolled, but what we make them do as part of the programme in such an environment. In other words, the more important criterion is not the age–it could even be play school at 18 months to 2 years, nursery at 3 years, kindergarten at 4 years, and Class 1 at 5 years–provided there is understanding that the curriculum and activities prescribed are developmentally-appropriate, multi-sensorial, and focused upon “whole-child development”. In such a case, going to school can be fun and engaging, and a source of considerable learning and growth.

A contrary view would be that within the age group of 18 months to 42 months, children may not be ready to deal with the disciplines and formalism of schooling, even if it is “preparatory” school. The concept of uniforms, structured periods and bells denoting the end of sessions, systematic instruction and organized curriculum may cause more problems than they facilitate learning. In such a case, it may be fair to say that children are better off getting ready for school at this age,and not actually being in school.

This cautionary approach is valid certainly if the approach is to structure all preparatory schooling along the lines of formal schooling, with systems, uniforms, organized activity and structured sessions, which may be excessively difficult for smaller children to handle. Sending children prematurely to attend school at a younger age, can impact their social and emotional development.

The solution to this would be to differentiate clearly, including in structure, programme and approach, between daycare, preschool and formal schooling. If done sensitively and carefully, Daycare can begin from as little as even 6 months old (in some cases even younger ), while preschooling could start between 3.5 years and 4 years, with flexibility built in to cater to individual child development. In this case, it seems reasonable to suggest that formal schooling would be most appropriate from 6 years of age.

In general, the main rule seems to be that instead of prescribing a rigid age to start formal schooling, the criteria should be to ensure that a sensitively structured preparatory or pre-schooling process has been provided for at least two years. Ensuring that children have been to preschool for at least two years before they start formal schooling age could be of significant benefit for the learning development of children, and their social skills. The focus could be on experiential teaching, which aims to create realistic, interactive and sensory stimulating learning experiences for the child. Such learning tends to work for almost every kind of learner, irrespective of their natural inclination toward visual, spatial, auditory or kinesthetic learning. A well-structured preschool experience prepares a child for formal school. It also ensures that the ensuing transition is smoother and stress-free for both the child and parents.

Thus in short, the main point seems to be that the focus needs to be on making an assessment of whether the child is ready to go from preschool to regular formal school. The age factor should be treated somewhat flexibly. Priority should instead be given to assess the child’s maturity and level of independence before sending them to school: for instance, are they able to feed themselves, do they enjoy playing with other children, can they take care of themselves, are they able to handle and care for play equipment and most importantly, have they been toilet-trained. If the answers to these questions are largely positive, the main challenge of making the transition to formal school will be met as there will naturally be lower levels of separation-anxiety, happier early- schoolers, who are eager to attend and ready to learn through inquiry, interactive instruction , hands-on learning and exploration. In short, the child will be ready for inclusion in interesting and engaging activities, and for a life-long adventure of learning.

Links below are 2 interesting readings on this similar idea.https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/Y8okupUSgexRDJNJ8m8fDN/What-is-the-right-age-for-a-child-to-start-going-to-school.html

When is the best age to start school?