Students may be disadvantaged by starting school at 5 years old

Country comparison: The average ages of entry into primary school.
Country comparison: The average ages of entry into primary school. 

Children in Australia start school younger than almost anywhere else in the developed world, up to two years ahead of students in top-performing countries such as Finland and Korea.

Experts say the early transition could be detrimental to both the learning and well-being of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a major international study of 15-year-olds in 2012, 58 per cent of Australian students reported they started primary school at the age of five, 27 per cent started at six, and 3 per cent were seven. Twelve per cent were aged four.

Too young: Experts believe an early start in school can be detrimental to both learning and the student's well-being.
Too young: Experts believe an early start in school can be detrimental to both learning and the student's well-being. Photo: Quentin Jones

The average starting age among Australians was 5.2 years, which was lower than most developed countries and similar to Britain, the data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed.

In Singapore, Shanghai and Finland, three of the highest performing education systems according to the major international ratings, the average starting age was almost seven, with 13 per cent of students in Shanghai starting at eight.

A Cambridge University expert in the cognitive development of young children, David Whitebread, said ''overwhelming evidence suggests that five is just too young to start formal learning''.

He says children should be engaged in informal play-based learning until about seven.

''The empirical evidence is that children who have a longer period of play-based early childhood education, that goes on to age six or seven, finish up with a whole range of clear advantages in the long term,'' he said. ''Academically they do better and they experience more emotional wellbeing.''

He says the benefits of delaying formal schooling are particularly significant for disadvantaged children, often forced into school early in Australia by the high costs of childcare. ''That, of course, is entirely the opposite to how it should be,'' Dr Whitebread said.


The rate of preschool attendance among Australian students was also lower than a majority of developed countries, with 52 per cent saying they had attended for more than one year. For Finland, that figure was 63 per cent. For Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore it was above 90 per cent.

A later starting age has been proposed in submissions to the government's inquiry into childcare and early childhood learning.

The University of Sydney's honorary professor in early childhood education, Alison Elliott, said it was not the starting age that was important but rather what children were doing at school.

''If children are allowed to come to school at the age of four, then we as teachers have to provide that early learning environment,'' she said. ''Teachers know, or should know, how to provide appropriate learning environments for those very young children.''