'A bad idea': the perils of starting school too early then repeating

Adrian Piccoli, former education minister turned director of the Gonski Institute for Education, has written a how-to ...
Adrian Piccoli, former education minister turned director of the Gonski Institute for Education, has written a how-to guide for parents when it comes to navigating the education system.  Photo: Steven Siewert

Former Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has warned that sending children to school before they're ready with the intention of repeating them is a "bad idea".

In his new book, Professor Piccoli said repeating kindergarten was also more likely if a child was sent to school before they had the necessary skills, "which is why it's important to get the starting age of your child right".

"I know of parents who have sent their children to kindergarten early because it's cheaper than long day care or preschool with the view of repeating them," he wrote in the book. "This is a bad idea and should be avoided."

Joanna Zanello worried about when to send Flynn and Archie to school, but repeating was never an option.
Joanna Zanello worried about when to send Flynn and Archie to school, but repeating was never an option. Photo: James Brickwood

Research suggests that students who repeated a year of school could feel shame, stigma and loss of self-esteem. It could lead to a negative attitude to school and learning, and a higher rate of behavioural problems, he said.

Parents needed to ensure that their children had the social and emotional skills to start school, Professor Piccoli said, because if they could not listen to instructions about the behaviour required, the likelihood of repeating increased.

Parents could see whether their child was ready by ensuring they could make an independent decision and follow through, follow two or three instructions at the same time, show positive interest in other children, and have ideas of their own, he said.

The first year of school has different names in different states. In NSW it's called kindergarten, but in Victoria it's known as prep.

But Professor Piccoli also acknowledged the enormous cost of childcare for families, and said early childhood education should be the "next national social reform" after the National Disability Insurance Scheme and school funding reform.

"In terms of where you would invest the next big amount of money into social policy reform, I think that's where," he said in an interview with The Sun-Herald. "The education and health benefits of early childhood ... make that investment well worth it."

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The present arrangement, which is a mix of state and federal funding in different sectors, and a clash between a workplace participation approach when it came to long daycare, and education at preschool, would be difficult to untangle.

"But I do think post NDIS, post Gonksi, this is the next social policy reform that Australia needs to do. And it will cost billions of dollars," he said.

NSW Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron backed Professor Piccoli's call. "Governments have a responsibility to provide free pre-schooling as part of the broader public provision of primary and secondary education," he said.

Lane Cove mum Joanna Zanello said she had sleepless nights worrying about whether she should send her February-born twins to school in 2017. She and her husband waited until after orientation and a meeting with the principal to be absolutely sure.

One of the boys in her sons' class was repeating kindergarten, having started the year before at a different school, but that was an option she would never consider.

“If I ever started to have that mentality, that I could just repeat them if they struggled, then I wouldn’t have been sending them for the right reasons,” she said. “Each to their own, and I know a lot of people say, 'oh you can just repeat them', but I think it's got to affect them in some way.”

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