Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

'Let kids be kids': Debate on law that will see 4-year-olds at school

School is not a place for 4-year-olds, Labour leader Andrew Little says.
School is not a place for 4-year-olds, Labour leader Andrew Little says.

A major change that will allow some 4-year-olds start school will help children form longer-term relationships, the Education Minister says.

The change has been strongly criticised by some in the sector. Labour leader Andrew Little this morning said allowing some children at school up to eight weeks before their 5th birthday was a bad idea.

"That is too young. I think let kids be kids. At the age of 4 you should be running around in the sandpit, in the garden, making cups of tea with muddy water. Kids should be doing that stuff, exploring their creative and fun side."

Eight weeks was "almost a lifetime" to a 4-year-old, Little said.

However, Education Minister Nikki Kaye said the shift was not "dramatic" and was backed by research showing the benefit of starting new entrants in groups.

"Some of the figures I have had is 80 per cent of parents support cohort entry, [and] 76 per cent of teachers. And one of the reasons for that is what the research shows: the ability to form longer-term relationships by coming in as a cohort is very positive, but also the lack of disruption in the classroom as well is part of what the research showed will be beneficial," Kaye said.

The Education (Update) Amendment bill is down to be read a final time this week and is a key plank of the biggest education reforms since 1989.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye says parents will choose when their child starts school, up to age 6. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.
Education Minister Nikki Kaye says parents will choose when their child starts school, up to age 6. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.

New Zealand allows children to start on their 5th birthday, and requires consistent attendance only from the age of 6. For many schools that will remain the case.

However, for school boards that opt to change to the new "cohort" option, students will start from the beginning of term closest to their 5th birthday - although parents wouldn't have to enrol their child until they turn 6, as is presently the case.

The earliest children could start is up to eight weeks before they turn 5.

The legislation is opposed by Labour, the Green Party and NZ First. In its minority view on the legislation, NZ First said almost no submissions were lodged in favour of lowering the earliest school age to 4 years 10 months, and the change appeared to be for the benefit of administrators and funding equations.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said he saw no issue with 4-year-olds starting school close to their 5th birthday.

"It is not a nominal age that suddenly prepares you for school. There are some 5-year-olds who are not ready, and they need to wait awhile. There are some younger children who are arguably well and truly ready.

"It's really about the individual child and how ready they are for school. Very much that's going to be influenced by the dialogue and relationship between the parent and early childhood teacher."

Labour Party leader Andrew Little believes children at age 4 should be learning away from a school environment. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Michael Craig
Labour Party leader Andrew Little believes children at age 4 should be learning away from a school environment. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Michael Craig

Reynolds said the cohort entry change was a good idea for some schools, and would make administration easier.

"But you have to be transparent about it - it has nothing to do with the learning outcomes of children, it's got everything to do with saving some administration time for schools. I can't blame schools for having a look at it."

Reynolds said some ECE centres could struggle if cohort entry at a nearby primary school meant a group of kids left at once. There could also be a perverse incentive for some parents to take their child out of ECE as soon as possible to save on fees.

University of Auckland senior lecturer and early childhood researcher Jean Rockel said she felt there was little reason to allow 4-year-olds to start school.

"If you look at countries that have great success with their children at school, such as Finland and Scandinavia, you'll see they start school around 6 years old."

In a pre-Budget announcement last week Prime Minister Bill English outlined new "social investment" spending, including a new programme to support pre-schoolers with oral language needs and literacy difficulties.

The Herald has previously reported on primary schools around the country noticing a decline in the spoken-language abilities of new entrants, with some not able to speak in sentences.

Kaye said cohort entry was already operated by some schools. However, they lacked the legal basis to do so and the new law will change this.

What's changing

• From next year school boards will be able to choose whether to change to a new "cohort" entry model.

• For school boards that opt to change to the new cohort option, students will start from the beginning of term closest to their 5th birthday. Parents will have the choice to start their child up to six weeks before their 5th birthday in term one, two and three, and up to eight weeks before their 5th birthday in term four.

• Families won't be legally required to send their child to school until their 6th birthday, as is currently the case.

• How many schools will take up the option is not known but NZEI expects a significant number will, particularly larger primary schools.

- NZ Herald

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