Whether to send children to school or hold them back a year is an anxiety-provoking decision many parents face. But a new study of Australian kids has revealed that decisions made in those early childhood years can have long-term implications, particularly when children will be younger than their peers.
The research, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that kids who are older for their grade are more likely to go to university - and it's largely to do with confidence in their own abilities.
"Being young for your grade really does lead to lower academic self-confidence, especially in maths, even accounting for student's actual performance in those subjects," said lead author Associate Professor Philip Parker of the Australian Catholic University. "Further, being young for your grade appears to slightly lower a student's chances of entering college, and the most likely reason for this is a lower level of academic self-confidence."
Why is academic self-concept important? "It's what kids use to make decisions," says Associate Professor Parker. "Should I do Advanced maths? Should I go to University? We have a changing society at the moment where it's quite hard to get ahead without a university degree. For better or worse."
As part of the research, the team used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia Youth, a sample of 10,370 15-year-old students who were surveyed over a decade. The participants were born between May 1987 and April 1988.
Results indicated that 58 per cent of students who were almost a year older than some students in their grade enrolled in university, compared with 52 per cent of students who were almost a year younger than other students.
So what exactly is going on?
"We find that children who are older than their peers - and are thus more mature - have a significant self-concept advantage," the authors write. "Furthermore, we find that this self-concept advantage contributes to university entry."
The researchers do note, however, that the finding is modest. "Are these effect sizes big enough for individual parents to worry about?" says Associate Professor Parker. "No. The parents - and the child - are the experts on what's best for them." And while he notes that there will always be some children who are older and some who are younger, "What you don't want is some people to take advantage of issues around enrolment".
Associate Professor Parker believes the current rules and regulations around school starting ages are too complex, with different jurisdictions having different amounts of wiggle room. "I've always been in favour of as little regulation as possible but it should be clear and consistently enforced," he says. "A single policy around school enrolment that is enforced around the country."
Associate Professor Parker also believes parents should be less focused on the "joy" or "shame" of accelerating children or repeating them and more mindful of the ongoing implications of their day-to-day interactions with their peers.
"At the school level, teachers should be on the lookout for kids who are relatively young for their grade," he adds, "and offering them extra supports if needs be."
For the study authors, the findings offer a clear conclusion: "When parents, teachers, schools or policy chooses the peer context for one child they are also helping to determining the context for ever other child," they write. "And this has real world outcomes."
In Australia, in most states and territories it is compulsory for children to have commenced school by the year they turn 6. From there, however, the rules differ slightly. In NSW, children must start school by their sixth birthday, but they can start in the year they are turning five if it's before July 31. This means that some classrooms, will include children who are four-and-a-half and students who are six.
In Victoria, in order to start primary school, children must turn five before 30 April of the year they start school.