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How To Decide When to Send Your Child To School

Updated on June 19, 2012

The History of Compulsory Schooling

Compulsory schooling as we know it today is generally considered to have begun in Prussia (now Germany) in the 19th Century, although Scotland had a system of compulsory education for children of nobles and landowners as early as the 15th century, and during the 17th century introduced parish schools which catered for most children. In North America compulsory schooling for all began around 1840.

In almost all cases, the main reason for educating poor children was to keep them from the ways of ungodliness, and to instill in them a strong work ethic.

First Day At School - A Self-Portrait

My younger daughter’s drawing on the first day of school.
My younger daughter’s drawing on the first day of school. | Source

Starting School Around the World Today

Today, work continues to influence schooling, both because older children are educated to be ready for work and because with both parents going out to work, many countries have lowered the age at which a child starts school.

Throughout the world, children start school at different ages, and with differing amounts of flexibility about those ages. India and The Netherlands win the prize of earliest start date, at age 4. However in the Netherlands the first two years of school are play based and formal education does not begin until age 6. So Indian children are possibly the earliest, with England coming a close second. In England, as in the United States and Canada, children starting school will be in an age group that runs from September to August. But while in North America the age range is from 5 – 6, in England it is from 4 – 5.

Table Showing When Children Start School In Different Countries

Compulsory age at starting school
4 - 5
Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Netherlands
4 ½ to 6
5 - 6
USA, Canada, Australia*
New Zealand, most European countries except those listed elsewhere, Japan, Phillipines
Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania

Comparisons between data may not be fully possible, as many countries have compulsory pre-school education with differing levels of formal or play based education.

*Starting age varies between states.

From Start to Finnish

So English children born in August who trot off to learn to read and write a few days after their fourth birthdays, are among the youngest in the world.

Partly because several educationists are concerned at this early start, a fair body of research is available in England on the possible benefits or disadvantages, both of starting school young in general, and in particular of being at the younger end of the school year group.

Although everyone from parents to government ministers will argue both ways, one thing experts do agree on is that Finland has an exemplary education system, with the best literacy rates in the world. They also outrank children in 43 nations including the US and Japan, in mathematics and science. Finnish children don’t start compulsory education until 7, which is later than most other countries. This in itself is not enough to assume that starting school late leads to better literacy, but it does suggest it doesn’t hinder it.

The Finnish National Board of Education’s own web-site states that there are several reasons for the high level of literacy in its country. These vary from the quality and flexibility of teaching methods and support for pupils with reading difficulties to the fact that Finland has a very small immigrant population, so most children learn to read in their native tongue. The site also points out that as many of the films they watch on television come from foreign countries and are sub-titled in Finnish, and children have a big incentive to learn to read. (On the other hand this can also be an incentive to learn English: in the Netherlands television programs are similarly often American, and one Dutch woman told me her son could speak English by the age of 5 due to watching cartoons.)

First Year At School

Drawings by my older daughter in her first year at school.
Drawings by my older daughter in her first year at school. | Source

Different Rates of Flexibility

So it seems the world doesn’t agree on when children should start formal education. Although I have included a table that shows comparative starting ages throughout the world, this can only ever give a rough guide as individual practices vary not just by country, but sometimes within countries. In England, which already has one of the earliest starting times, some nurseries start teaching children to read in the year before they start school. In Australia, practices vary between states.

In Scotland children can go to school from 4 ½, with the school year beginning in August. However children who have turned 4 in January or February can be deferred until the following year if parents chose to do so, and any child who is not yet 5 can be deferred until the following year should parents and pre-school nursery consider it to be in the child’s best interests. In making this decision social ability is considered as important as academic ability.

In South Africa children enter a reception year between 4 ½ to 5 ½ and then begin compulsory schooling the year later. But if parents think their child is not ready for school at that time, they can keep them back for a year, regardless of where they fit into the year group. Many schools assess children for readiness for school and advise parents accordingly.

Things Have Changed Since Then

The first day at school - one of the Pocahontas Co. rural schools. Location: Pocahontas County, West Virginia / Photo. L.W. Hine.
The first day at school - one of the Pocahontas Co. rural schools. Location: Pocahontas County, West Virginia / Photo. L.W. Hine. | Source

Another Option in Some Countries

In many countries it is compulsory for your child to be educated, but the education can take place at home. A growing number of parents now take up this option. In the UK it is estimated that 1% of school-aged children are home-schooled, and in the States the figure was 2.9% in 2007. Parents choosing to home-school vary from conservative Christians who follow a strict curriculum to parents who choose to “unschool.” The latter method allows for a great deal of flexibility in how children learn, with little formal teaching. It is in this type of home-education where there has been most growth.

Research Into The Effects of Starting Younger or Older

Much of the research in England shows that children who are young for their year group do on average achieve less compared to their older counterparts. A recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that by the age of seven, children in England with August birthdays are three times as likely to be below average than those born in September, more than twice as likely to be unhappy at school and at more at risk of being a victim of bullying. They are also less likely to do well at sport.

As the children grow up those with August birthdays are 20% less likely to go on to university, and tend to have lower confidence, and feel less in control “of their own destiny.”

Other research has found that children who are young for their age group are more likely to have learning and behavioral difficulties. I taught for a few years in the 1990s, during which time some research showing these findings came out, and when I went through my registers I noticed that of the pupils who behaved disruptively in my classes, the majority were among the youngest in their year group.

Yet, while some studies from the States have shown similar results, others suggest that children who are delayed from starting school may have behavior issues and be more likely to drop out during high school. I can also remember a pupil I taught who was a year behind at school, and who frequently behaved disruptively, skipped school and then left before obtaining any qualifications.

No Clear-Cut Answer

In the end there is no clear-cut answer, and it’s important to remember that our children are not statistics. I know children who have started young and cope well, and others who struggle or who have stayed back a year at a later stage. In general professionals tend to recommend that it is more important to defer entry for boys than for girls, yet even this cannot be taken for granted.

When deciding whether or not to defer your child’s start at school it makes sense to consider the research findings and then discuss your child’s progress with your pre-school providers. Social ability is equally as important as academic ability when considering whether to defer sending your child to school. If your child is developmentally delayed in any way, including in toilet training, language or in motor skills then deferment may be a good option.

It is important to remember that even once children start school they will progress at different rates and in different ways. My first daughter found reading easy from day one, while my younger daughter (who was young for her year group) took a full year to get the hang of it. But as she progressed through school she gradually found the work easier and became more interested in what she learned at school. Each child is an individual and you as parent know them better than any teacher does, so listen to what the teacher suggests and then listen even deeper to your own intuition.


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    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 

      17 months ago from Washington DC

      Thank you, Yvomme, for your research, it's very interesting and logical. I enjoyed it very much, gave me much to think about.

      I was a different breed of a child, a country boy until age 8, curious about everything from as young as I remember and, like many children, questioned everything that my schoolteacher mother couldn't give me an answer to that sacrificed my understanding. I wanted to began school younger than 5.5 when I began in September, 1950.

      Unlike most children I learned faster when I was doing other things during the instructions and while doing it, something that has followed me to this day. Because of that I've discovered "education" isn't something received in any institution but what one gets by their own observing, participating and reasoning. In 1978 I met another boy in his early fifties who only had one bit of formal schooling, someone taught him how to write his name, yet he could read with understanding and print english; I don't know about his reading writing.

      I say that because schooling man do to man of all ages what a school of fish does, follow their leader to their own demises as in going to war under false pretense like I did going to Vietnam.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi raciniwa,

      Apologies for the delay in reply but I have been away from home. I agree that it depends on the development of the child and really this is a decision each parent must make for each child.

      I’m not sure that starting young helps kids adjust - some studies suggest the opposite is true - that some kids become peer-attached instead of parent-attached and seek support and nurturing from peers instead of parents, with the result that they don’t get the guidance they need. Gordon Neufeld wrote about this in "Hold on to Your Kids.” (I reviewed it in my hub "The Best Parenting Books for Supporting you as a Parent”.)

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

    • raciniwa profile image


      8 years ago from Talisay City, Cebu

      It really depends on the development of the child...but starting young will help her adjust well with social peers for that is one of the reasons why kids are brought to school...for social development...

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Eddy,

      Ah, I know so well what you mean about it being hard for parents. When my kids started the class went in for a half-day only for the first few weeks, so it didn’t seem that different to nursery, but when they went full-time that’s when it really seemed the house was empty. With my first daughter in particular felt strange to pick up her sister from nursery and then not her. But as she didn’t know anyone in her class and only one person in the school we sometimes met her for lunch, which helped with the transition.

      Thanks so much for your comment and apologies for taking a while to get back to you - the 30/30 challenge! So now it’s over I’m getting to my comments.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      Hi Melvoy what a great hub and I know that so many other agree.

      I can relate to my children's first day at school so very hard for parents.

      Half of me was glad because I knew it was healthy to be with someone outside the family y circle and another of me crying out

      "Oh please can I have him/her back they are only babies !!!

      I think parents cry more than the little ones half the time -lol

      Thank you so much for sharing this gem and here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here.

      Take care and enjoy your day.


    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Ardie,

      It sounds to me as if you are doing a great job with your daughter if she always manages to catch up, but I can see that that’s not how you’d like it. We want things to flow smoothly for our kids don’t we? But maybe it could be something that will be beneficial to her when she’s older because she knows how to work at things.

      My younger daughter used to struggle a bit and finds things easier now, and I do think that some kids seem to hit a point where things just “click’ and then it gets easier, so maybe that will happen with your daughter. Mine was about 11 before I could really say I noticed that.

      Wishing you both the best anyway! And thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi MsDora,

      Good to see you! The top drawing is a self-portrait!

      You make some very important points. We seriously considered sending our kids to a Steiner school where children don’t learn to read till later, but in the end decided to stick with our local school. I did feel that the huge change from nursery took a bit of getting used to. Interesting that you say after a few years there is no noticeable difference between those who start early and those who start later. Perhaps it’s something we could all do with relaxing around!

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Ardie profile image


      8 years ago from Neverland

      Im glad I dont have to worry about making this decision now. All my kids are in school BUT I do wish I would have waited another year before sending my middle daughter off. She is the youngest in her class due to her birthday and she seems to struggle just a bit during the school year. She always catches up by the end of the year but I really work with her. This is a great Hub and very interesting to read how other countries choose an age for schooling.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      8 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for this important and well laid-out discussion. Your children's drawings are precious. Some educators suggest that the more children play before beginning formal education, the more anxious they are to learn. Also, after a few years in school, there is no noticeable difference between those who started at three and those who started at six. One important thing is the parent's involvement in the child's learning process no matter when he/she begins school.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Pamela99,

      I think your point about the quality of education systems is a valid one, and it is very hard to compare because of so many differences. I wonder why the US system doesn’t get such good results as other countries? It is intriguing. The Scottish system is generally regarded as a good one, with better results than England for example, and I am pleased with how my children get on, but so much depends even on individual schools. I do think that the transition from pre-school nursery to school is a huge leap in Scotland, so I’ve found it interesting to find out a bit more about the kindergarten system.

      Thanks for you comment and vote up.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi imaginationtour,

      It sounds as if you regret your decision, but as you say you could never have predicted this, so don’t be too hard on yourself. My older daughter is small for her age, so in spite of being among the older kids in her year group, she’s smaller than most. She also used to excel at sports and then had many illnesses which meant others overtook her. It was hard for her, and I found that challenging too, so I can understand your feelings. What works for us is talking about the feelings and allowing them and then reassuring her that she has many other talents besides sport. It sounds as if your son also does if his grades are good, so perhaps encourage your son to focus on that.

      Thanks for your comment and I wish you and your son well.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is a very thought provoking hub. My sons all started at age 5, with the oldest one being almost 6 as his birthday was just after the cutoff. I had spent a lot of time teaching them things at home, reading them books, etc. It is very interesting to compare the different countries but I also wonder if the quality of their education systems differ.

      It is sad that statistically children in the US are much lower than several other counties. Rated up and awesome.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      My son has an August 31 birthday and started school at age 4. He was socially, physically and academically ready to learn. He excelled in academics and sports and the social scene UNTIL the 8th grade. He did not grow as fast as the other boys and being almost a year younger than most of them, he was now almost TWO years behind physically. This was a situation that NOONE could have predicted - not doctors, pre-school teachers or his own family. He spent the next two years falling behind in sports - his love and his identity up to that point. The stress showed academically and socially. The school system would not allow him to be held back because his grades were too good. If I could go back in time and do ANYTHING over again, it would be to keep him at home with me for one more year.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Billy,

      Glad you found it interesting, and yes it is a very young start for some! Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I wasn't aware that the starting age was so young in some countries. Thanks for the info and a very interesting hub!

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Lisa HW,

      Your comment is a good example of why each parent needs to listen to their own intuition, and as you say, be careful of what research says. I think it is wise to take the research into account, but each child is an individual.

      Comparisons between countries aren’t straightforward - in the UK there is no kindergarten but England has a ‘reception year’ at school. We lived in England when my children were little and even at nursery some children start learning to read. Scotland’s nurseries are more play based, but school can be a huge leap for some kids, so I think the flexibility is necessary. Because of how Scotland’s school system works it’s fairly common here for kids to graduate university at 21, and occasionally even at 20, although that’s less common than it used to be.

      Godo to hear your son is doing so well, my second daughter was also born premature, and progressively does better at school the further on she goes.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi timmathisen,

      I’m glad you found this interesting. There is a fairly wide difference in starting ages. What surprised me is how much variation there is even within some countries.

      Thanks for your comment and vote up.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      8 years ago from UK

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for the explanation of kindergarten as I wasn’t entirely sure how it compares to nursery or school in the UK. Sounds as if it’s in between nursery and school here. Nursery in Scotland is very unstructured - kids even choose when to have their snack - and school is then a big change with lots of reading and writing from day 1. I guess each system has its benefits and drawbacks, and someone will always be the youngest and oldest in every year.

      Thanks very much for your comment and vote up!

    • Lisa HW profile image

      Lisa HW 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      My younger son got into kindergarten at four years old, just before the laws in my U.S. state changed to require that a child be "a full five". My son was more than ready to go to school; and after having been a premie, he was at the top of his class throughout his first several years of school. (My sister and her son were all four when they started kindergarten.) Personally, I think there are concerns when so many kids in the U.S. are not "emotionally mature" enough to start school at four. I know a child who was held out, ended up being kept an extra year in kindergarten, and ended up being seven years old in kindergarten. I know the U.S. laws have changed to reflect an increasing number of kids who aren't ready to start kindergarten until they're at least five *and maybe that's reasonable enough). What we have, though, is kids who are then kept out another year because they're still not ready - hence, those seven-year-olds in kindergarten. I don't think the U.S. has taken a good direction. (In the meantime, my son graduated college at 21, so people should be careful about what "research says". It depends on the child.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This was an interesting read. I had no idea some countries started formally schooling kids when they turned 4 years old. Voted up and interesting.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      8 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      My children started kindergarten at age 5 and were 6 years old when they started grade one. This has worked out extremely well, kindergarten was a combination of play and learn to ease a child from a home life to a school life, really preparing the child for the learning that goes on in grade 1.

      Friends of ours have a child born in September; the cutoff age here is the end of September, so she was the youngest in her class and has definitely shown signs of trouble. They are moving to a new town and she will be going to a new school and I think they are planning on having her repeat a grade. I am certain this will help in her case.

      Interesting hub - to learn about the various starting ages. Well researched, voted up and interesting.


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