Why Children Need to Start Primary School at Age Six

Reed James discusses raising the age of primary school education to six.

As a former primary school and nursery worker, I have seen first-hand how the current education system is failing children because they are forced to begin primary school too early. Currently, the age children have to start primary school is legally five, however most schools allow children to start from four, which is what most parents decide to do. In 1870 when the decision was made for four-five to be the starting age for primary school, it was not done because it was the best age for children’s education, but because it suited employers: by quickly establishing a school starting age, a leaving age could then be created. In retrospect, four-five as a school starting age was a mistake. As more has been discovered about child psychology, it has become clear that most children are not mentally ready for the types of complex literacy, reading and mathematics-related tasks expected of them in primary school. The Labour Party is a party of progressive change but one change that it has not yet contemplated is raising the age of primary school education to six, which is the most common primary school starting age in Europe. Raising the primary school starting age does not mean though that children do nothing at four-five but instead they would be educated in a nursery, which is a setting I believe is far more appropriate for children at that age.

In modern times the common justification given for children starting primary school at four-five is that children are both given a head start in education and can make up their 'academic deficit' from living in disadvantaged households. Although these are good ideas in principal, there is little evidence to support them in practice. Evidence shows that children who start primary school at four-five receive no long-term advantage in reading, literacy or mathematics compared to children who start started primary school at six, consequently starting primary school at four-five does not compensate for being in a disadvantaged household. The reason children starting primary school at four-five receive no long-term advantages is because primary school at that age is an ineffective way of teaching, this is because children are mentally unready for the tasks expected of them in primary school. As a result, lessons often become unproductive because the tasks are not age appropriate. At four-five, children have little ability to focus, let alone write sentences without even having a grasp of the English language.

Comparatively, there is strong evidence to suggest that starting primary school at age six is advantageous to children. Instead of going to primary school, children at four-five attend nursery and can develop better as people first, through spending most of their time in more age appropriate tasks like play. Play is so important at four-five because it helps children to develop their physical, mental and social skills through their interactions with designed play tasks and socialisation with other children. Reading, literacy and mathematics are still taught at nursery, but at age-appropriate levels and in short bursts. Six is the optimal time to start primary school because by then the mental capacity of children is remarkably similar to that of adults, allowing them to begin to properly engage in the level of reading, literacy or mathematics that primary schools expect of them. Although correlation does not inherently imply causation, it is notable that the United Kingdom has consistently lagged behind its European counterparts who start primary school at age six in all PISA contests. PISA contests being an international programme run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that tests students’ abilities in reading, mathematics and literacy.

If there is little advance in children starting primary school at four-five and much to be gained by children starting at age six then I beliee there is little reason for this change not to happen. Times have changed since 1870 and it is time the Labour Party embraced this change to finally move our education system along with the times.


Reed James is studying History and Politics at the University of Leicester, is the Secretary of Leicester Labour Society, and tweets at @ReedJam81658557.


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