Does it matter when your child starts school?

Does holding back your child a year mean they will do better at school?

The answer to these important questions – of course – is dependent on the child – and it also depends on the school and the teachers at the school. By law, in South Africa, children should start Grade 1 when they are six years old – or more specifically they can only start school when they are five years old if they are turning six before 30 June of that year. However in practice, many parents keep their children back to ensure they are more mature when they start Grade 1. This means that most children turn seven in Grade 1. So in theory your five-year-old could be in the same class as someone who is 18 or more months older than your child. By law, the difference in age is not meant to be more than two years.

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Is this a big deal? Does it make any difference?

Our daughter was five when she started school in January and turned six a month later. I had expected that she would be with many other children who were going to turn six before June of that year. However, when it came to sports day – I noticed that there were only six children who ran in the under-six race – which indicated to me that most parents that year decided to keep their children back. This meant that she was now one of the youngest children in her class instead of being somewhere in the middle. Most of the children she started with turned seven in Grade 1.

So you might ask: Did it make any difference to her school career?

At first it did. All her reports indicated that she was immature and her marks were middle of the road and unimpressive. As a teacher myself, I wondered if I had made a mistake sending her to school when she was so young. Perhaps I should have listened to the school psychologist who tested her and told us that she was school-ready BUT she could be Head Girl and get six distinctions if we kept her in nursery school for another year – which as an educator – I regarded as total nonsense! At that time only private schools offered Grade 0, and our daughter attended a government school so we didn’t have that option. Had Grade R or 0 been available at the school we would have taken that option.

Did we make a mistake?

No we did not. Each child is an individual and each parent has to make their own decision based on their circumstances – and live with it. Although an 18-month difference seems a lot when you are five, it is not such a big difference when you get higher up in the school.

Our daughter was a hard worker – she had parents who were hard workers and put value on overcoming challenges and persisting when things are hard or get tough. We read books to her from an early age and she learnt that books were places where she could find enjoyment and look for information. We strove to be supportive and involved parents.

Our daughter also had teachers who nurtured and helped her to settle into ‘big school’. They had experience in handing children of different ages and abilities and they adapted what they did to make sure that the youngest and the oldest were offered an education appropriate to their stage of development. She was in the same class as a boy whose grandmother had taught him to read before he started school – largely because he had been ‘held back’ and was more than ready to learn to read when he was five years old. He was bright and top of the class all the way through primary school and the teachers accommodated him in their teaching programme so that he did not get bored. Our daughter also learnt to read – but at school – and when she did so, she could read as well as he could. Most children learn to read when they are ready to read; some children battle to read because they have a learning disability not related to their age.

So did we make the right call?

You might be wondering – did the educational psychologist get it right? Would our daughter have performed better if she had been held back? I asked her that question and she said no! She said she did feel like she was younger than everyone else in her grade at primary school, but by the time she got to matric she was as mature as her peers and in many ways more mature. She was made a prefect, got a triple-colours white blazer, achieved six distinctions and went on to university (with lots of other 17-year-olds) and did very well. She said that she couldn’t have endured still being at school when she was 18 – she was more than ready to leave. She was so relieved to be free of school rules, to be able to learn to drive and start university and get on with her life as a young independent woman.

You might argue – correctly – that she would have achieved all of that anyway regardless of when she started school. And I would agree with you. My point is that school-readiness and achievement at school are not necessarily linked to age. The 12 or 13 years your child spends at school is a journey. There will be stops and starts, delays and derailments. Your role as a parent is to support them along the way AND to support what the teacher is doing at school so that you work as a team. Working together will ensure that your child is able to negotiate all the obstacles thrown their way.

To find out more about school-readiness and how you can support your child’s progress at school read Making the Grade – the grown-up’s guide to going to school. Visit www.macrat.co.za for more information.


Categories: Macrat Musings

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