2 February 2024

Letter from the Editor: Should boys start school at six?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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As Googong Primary opened in 2023, students, parents and staff gathered to start the year. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

A quarter century ago, my twin boys started at a tiny little village school down the road from our place.

There were 16 or so kids, and the place functioned more like an extended family than a classroom. Kids treated each other like siblings, parents all knew each other, and as with all families, there were lumps and bumps along the way.

My two boys were turning six that year, but one of the other children in their class was a full 18 months younger than them, and the difference was stark in every way. Socially, academically, personally – this was a child who should not have been at school.

This week, hundreds of five-year-old children began kindergarten. Should many of the boys have stayed in preschool instead?

The age at which school starts is, increasingly, a stratified and often income-based equation. The wealthier parents are, the more likely their children will start school later. They have access to childcare, can meet the costs and careers are less likely to be impeded.

And no parent needs to be told, with a massive mountain of scientific evidence in front of them, that most boys are significantly slower to mature than girls are.

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In addition to maturity and coping skills, boys often begin school with lower fine motor coordination and verbal skills. Many struggle with the expectations that they will sit still, play nice and observe orderly social norms.

In the past, there was more time for the boys to catch up. Kindergarten used to be a time for learning how to exist comfortably in a group, exploring the world, and understanding what school was all about.

Now, it’s learning from an earlier and earlier age. There are mounting consequences for children who fall behind from the beginning and by the end of primary school it is often too late to remedy the situation.

Where once girls were disadvantaged by social and cultural roles, they now succeed above and beyond most boys, but disengaged boys feel they can’t learn and stop trying by the early teen years. It’s very hard to fix that.

This has nothing to do with intellectual capacity but is deeply connected to maturity, focus, and the teenage male brain’s capacity to act with foresight and make good decisions.

Boys are generally more likely than girls to be in the bottom third of ATAR results. Boys’ school attendance rates are much lower than girls and they are more likely to be excluded from school. Nationally, 84 per cent of girls finished Year 12 in 2021, but the completion rate for boys is only 74.9 per cent.

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So, do we need to create a more nuanced approach to school start dates that recognises and deals with the realities for boys? Would it make more sense to hold boys back until they are six?

Across much of Europe, school begins at six. The Finnish education system sits at the top of EU educational outcomes and has for many years. There, school begins at seven.

Every Finnish child has a legal right to high-quality preschool education. Fees are capped by the state and access is free for low-income families. There is a 98 per cent take-up rate for optional preschool at the age of six, where the focus is on socialisation, play and “learning to learn”.

It seems unlikely that we’d shift our whole school system to starting at six. But perhaps we could encourage that more strongly as an option and empower schools to turn away five-year-olds who are clearly not ready to begin learning. Many of them would be boys and many of those boys would thrive on a little more space and time before entering a classroom.

A system that backed up that recognition, rather than our current relentless focus on academic success, might serve all our kids better.

Original Article published by Genevieve Jacobs on Riotact.

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