IN the mid-1970s I was the guidance officer for a dozen Tasmanian schools, including one I especially liked, Trevallyn Primary.
The principal, Elizabeth Daly, sought my help there for a problem that still challenges our schools. Significant numbers of children in Prep class were not ready to progress to Grade One, and the research suggested this was not so much an ability problem as a developmental one. They were too young, or simply slower at gaining the readiness to move on. Some of the best minds in the world are slower growing, and this is especially true of boys.
We devised a simple screening test, which told us who was ready to graduate from early learning to formal school. Those not ready could, if their parents agreed, spend another year in Prep. Pushing them ahead too early, or too young, and the evidence was clear, they could flounder and struggle all through school.
Zoom forward to the 1990s. I was researching my book Raising Boys, and running teacher development programs in schools all across the world. What I was learning was that a gender difference, always known about by teachers, was being confirmed by brain scanning.
Boys’ readiness for school, the acquisition of fine motor skills needed for holding a pencil or pen and the language skills needed to perform well in school, generally developed six to 12 months later than in girls. In fact, girls develop in a different sequence to boys. They acquire fine motor skills first, whereas boys develop them only when competent using their large muscle groups, their arms and legs.
Boys under six need to move about a lot. Sitting at a desk for very long causes them acute discomfort, and slows the development of proper co-ordination. And it makes them very unhappy about school.
Kathy Silva, at Cambridge University, found that attitudes to school formed in the first six months often persist for life. You’ll recognise here a very Tasmanian problem, negative attitudes to school, affecting retention to Grade 12; poor performance and high behaviour issues among boys.
Zoom now to 2016 and witness the confusion that the Tasmanian Government has got into by trying to find a quick solution to a problem that needs careful thought.
Australia as a whole is out of step with the world, and our State Government is seeking to make that worse.
Child development experts around Australia were shocked at news of our plan to lower the school starting age. The question immediately asked was: “What are they basing it on?” The answer, it appears, was very little.
The press releases simply repeated uncontroversial words about early learning being important, and play-based learning being good. The Minister made the inaccurate claim this is all that happens in Prep. If only.
The weight of all research in this field over 30 years — and there has been a great deal — is that older starting is better. Strengthening and extending the kindergarten stage for under sixes is the best way to help overcome disadvantage.
There is a real problem in Tasmania caused by socio-economic inequality as well as a multigenerational failure to thrive. In fact, you could say there are three different kinds of Tasmanian childhood.
About half of all children are raised — and in fact have their early learning — from an at-home parent who is secure enough and part of their community — with playgroups, toys, activities, lively and involved, needing very little else before entering kindergarten at the age of four.
A second group for either financial or career reasons uses childcare, happily or reluctantly. These children do best if they do not start too young, or spend too long a day or too many days a week, and if the childcare is of sufficiently high quality.
The third group of children are those with uneducated, illiterate, highly stressed, drug-addicted or violent or unstable families. They may be unable to provide the safe environs, the play opportunities, the affection and engagement that a child needs. Childcare may be too expensive for them, but if they use it, it helps. Kindergarten is a joy for these children, but it may come too late. Otherwise, these children are lucky if they watch a TV uninterrupted, or can play happily in a backyard. These kids don’t get the kind of start that makes for success at school. I think this group is the one that the Government is confused about.
A few weeks ago I was phoned by the Minister’s office, seeking to explore my concerns about the proposed changes. We had some cordial discussion, during which I asked how many children started school each year in Tasmania. After some searching, they ascertained the figure was about 6000.
How many, I asked, were disadvantaged? Their answer floored me, yet it was the same answer Minister Rockliff gave to Burnie alderman Teeny Brumby last week — about 50 per cent. Their definition of disadvantaged, I can only guess, was any child who did not attend daycare.
Perhaps this explains the hugely blunt instrument the Government proposed — forcing all children to start school even younger, when for most there was simply no demonstrated need.
In fact, according to welfare groups around the state, the figure of disadvantaged kids sits between 5 and 8 per cent, depending on criteria. We have our social problems in Tasmania, but we are not quite in Dickensian squalor just yet.
Nobody doubts the need for good early learning, but for the under-sixes that’s why we have kindergarten. And kindy in Tasmania is a great success, attracting, according to the Department, 98 per cent of children without any need to compel. It’s also the optimal length that research suggests, three short days a week are enough to get the very best learning. More than that works in reverse by stressing small children and tiring them.
The elephant in the room of this discussion is that 88 per cent of the world starts school at six or seven years of age. Those countries base this on the neuroscience — this is the age when children’s brains undergo a significant change and become mature enough to benefit from formal learning.
The only countries still starting formal learning at age five or lower are those which were former British colonies and the UK itself. The UK has terrible educational outcomes compared with almost all of its neighbours. Australia as a whole is out of step with the world, and our State Government is seeking to make that worse.
Tasmanian educational outcomes are compromised by the “schoolification” of Prep, which has been contaminated by the pressure to achieve literacy goals and other “benchmarks” inappropriate to this age.
A worldwide movement of educational psychologists, of which I am a part, campaigns against this “too much too soon” trend. Penelope Leach in England, Lillian Katz in the US, and Kay Margetts in Melbourne are world experts in child development who are fiercely arguing the harm of formal schooling for littlies.
And here is where the rubber hits the road. When the new changes come into force, 3000 extra children will join the 6000 who normally begin in that year. The effects of being younger than one’s classmates are well researched, and not something any parent would want.
Frederickson and Ockert (2005) found children who were younger when they started school performed worse in all subjects at Year 9 and were less likely to go on to finish secondary school. Isn’t that what this issue is about?
The solution, though it needs more discussion, may look something like this. We need to do more of what we are doing already — reaching out to very high-need families with support from pregnancy onward. We need to allow, but not force, children into enriched early learning by supporting or subsidising quality childcare. We need to extend kinder by bringing Prep back into the play-based format it was designed to be, and strongly prevent the creep of formal schooling pressures younger than age six.
We need to let children stay in early learning settings until they are individually ready to move up and where they can get individual support and caring help to make that most likely to happen.
Steve Biddulph, AM, is the author of Raising Boys, Raising Girls, and The New Manhood. His books are in 32 languages and four million homes. He has consulted to Tasmanian schools for 40 years.