General Teaching Council Northern Ireland

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'Counterproductive' to send child to school at 4


06/05/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News

A leading early years education expert has embraced suggestions that parents may be able to delay the start of their children's schooling by a year.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, said she welcomed that the end of the 11-plus could give parents greater flexibility.

Many are unhappy that the system forces some children to begin P1 just weeks after their fourth birthday - the youngest age in Europe.

Most European countries and the US have a mandatory starting age of six, while in Britain children begin at five.

In the Republic, children are "legally obliged" to start school at six but can begin earlier if parents wish.

While schools have admitted pupils from the age of four for decades, it has only been compulsory since 1989.

For a short time in the mid-1980s it was raised to five.

But for years the starting date has been driven by rules governing the age at which a child could take the 11-plus.

Removing the test is now expected to allow for more flexibility.

Ms Fitzpatrick said there was a substantial body of evidence to suggest that starting school at four is counterproductive.

"In Northern Ireland, our children start school earlier than anywhere else in Europe.

"There is no evidence that this gives our children any advantage, in fact the opposite is true," she said.

"Research shows that children actually benefit from starting school later, especially those who would have found themselves starting just after their fourth birthday, depending on the month of their birth."

"We believe that we need to have a full debate on the school starting age, and whether or not it actually helps children achieve the education which they deserve."

Research evidence, Ms Fitzpatrick said, suggested that teaching more formal skills early in school gave children initial academic success, but that this advantage was not sustained in the longer term.

She said there were some suggestions that an early introduction to a formal curriculum may increase anxiety and have a negative impact on children's self-esteem and motivation to learn.

"We welcome the fact that changes in the 11-plus will allow us to take a long look at the school starting age, which we believe is too young in Northern Ireland," Ms Fitzpatrick said.

"The revised curriculum begins to take us down the road which Early Years believes we should be moving, but there is still a serious debate to be had. Play-based learning means that children learn to learn, rather than learn to remember facts.

"Certainly there would appear to be no compelling educational reason for a statutory school age of four years in Northern Ireland."



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