What Age Should Children Start Formal Schooling?

by NDFAuthors

  • Oct 14, 2013

The age that children begin formal, compulsory and full time schooling is a contentious issue around the world.

Ages vary widely, from 4 in Northern Ireland to 5 in England to 6 in Germany and 7 in a number of European countries such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden. 1 The age at which children formally begin education has complicated roots from country to country based on social concerns such as the provision and cost of childcare, historical tradition, in some countries going back to anti-exploitation and labour laws in the 19th century. It is also worth mentioning that all the countries mentioned also have pre-school options which are non-compulsory for parents to enrol in, but which can be so popular that almost all children partake in them.

Last month more than 100 academics and experts in early childhood education wrote a letter condemning the British government’s approach to early years education and that they believed that starting formal school so early, with a focus on assessed academic achievement rather than play based learning and discovery, was even damaging to children. They are even concerned that policies coming from government officials for pre-schools are too focused on preparing children for the formal structures of learning and that their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development is being hindered by lack of access to active, creative and outdoor play. In other words, there is too much focus on them learning information and the academic skills of reading and writing than allowing them to explore, imitate and develop their social skills through play. Part of the answer could be in delaying the compulsory school starting age in conjunction with the provision of high-quality, play based nurseries:

Children who enter school at six or seven – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of wellbeing. The success of Scandinavian systems suggests that many intractable problems in English education – such as the widening gap in achievement between rich and poor, problems with boys’ literacy, and the ‘summerborns’ issue – could be addressed by fundamentally re-thinking our early years policies.’2



My own experience of teaching children from 2 years old leaves me a little conflicted. I am in no doubt that play based learning in the early years is of paramount importance for all aspects of the development of our children. I have seen many young children start full time, formal school when they are clearly not ready for it and yet on the other hand, I have also seen many children, who at the age of around three are keen and ready to begin more formal academic tasks (in an interactive, balanced way) such as learning letters, sounds and numbers. It seems a shame to discourage this when some children are so clearly motivated to learn and are developmentally able. Whilst there is no such thing as your average child, this makes it incredibly hard to legislate on an age to begin compulsory, formal schooling.

The academics and experts who wrote the letter mentioned above, cited credible studies. On the other side however, there is also evidence to support early schooling with focused academic activities rather than a play based approach. The Perry School project carried out between 1962 and 1967 does provide us with a wealth of data. The children who were taken into account were children living in poverty and they were assessed to be at high risk of school failure. The study was followed up several years later showing:

At age 27

  • Completed an average of almost 1 full year more of schooling
  • 44 percent higher high school graduation rate

At age 40

  • 46 percent less likely to have served time in jail or prison
  • 33 percent lower arrest rate for violent crimes
  • 42 percent higher median monthly income
  • 26 percent less likely to have received government assistance 3

With regards to looking at the data from this study, it should be remembered that these were children who had a much higher probability of disengaging from education and the associated problems that come with it. This also brings up another problem when deciding on legislation, what parents do with their children outside a formal educational setting. Some parents spend huge amounts of time engaging, playing with and enabling their children to explore, learn and wonder at the world around them, whereas others for a vast number of reasons do not or cannot.



It seems that this debate will continue for some time and the compulsory school age in whichever country we live in is not something we have much control over. In the meantime here are some suggestions of things to do with your child at home which will enable their personal, social and emotional development and ensure that once they are introduced to the academic side of learning (at whatever age), they will be more likely to be ready to acquire these skills:

  • Allow children the opportunity to have free and unstructured play with other children. Play is one of the primary ways children learn to interact, learn the rules of friendships and try out different roles.
  • Talk to your child and encourage them to talk to you without the distractions of televisions or computers. Have the patience to let your child finish talking without interrupting and ask for their opinions.
  • Share books and games. Jigsaws and board games are great for concentration and learning how to win and to lose!
  • A regular routine helps children to know when to expect different times of the day. It’s amazing the difference that regular meals and sufficient sleep makes to your child’s concentration.
  • Have rules and stick to them with consequences for infringing them. Be firm but fair!
  • Allow plenty of time exploring the outdoors and running around especially with friends. It really does fire not just the muscles but the imagination too.

1  http://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/44410/44410.pdf
2  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/10302844/The-Government-should-stop-intervening-in-early-education.html
3  http://evidencebasedprograms.org/1366-2/65-2

Featured image:  http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/young-kids-sleeping-in-classroom-photo-p202090