As the new school year looms, parents with new entrants face a hard choice: should they start as soon as they turn 5, or wait until they are closer to 6 when they legally have to be in school? Education reporter Simon Collins examines the options.
When David and Sophie Geary's twins were approaching school age, they looked at their local primary school and didn't like what they saw.
"We spent a couple of half-days there," says David.
"We were unimpressed. It just seemed unstructured. They didn't seem to be learning as much there.
"The kids played with plastic toys. They had tablets but they were just playing games on them - educational games, but still games. There was a lot of snacking and a lot of not really useful activities."
Compared with their Montessori kindergarten of just 28 children with three teachers, the school felt too big for their twins, Ellie and Luca, who were then 5.
"I felt overwhelmed," says Sophie. "They have 500 children. There's no rush putting them into that sort of environment. Here, we know the children."
Most importantly, the Gearys want their twins to be independent. At their Koru Montessori kindergarten in Sunnynook on Auckland's North Shore, children are encouraged to learn more when they show interest in something.
"It works better than being told, 'Today we are doing reading,'" David says. "That can in some ways put them off."
The Montessori kids stay in the same mixed-age group throughout their three years in the kindergarten, at first learning from their elders, then in their final year helping the younger ones.
Taxpayers may pay $42m extra to restore school entry age of 5
"Ellie and Luca really enjoyed teaching the younger ones, it gave them that sense of achievement," says Sophie.
"Apart from the academic side - because they are a lot more advanced than other children in knowing numbers and reading and writing - they are really keen to do things. You don't have to push them."
So the twins stayed at the kindergarten until they turned 6 when they legally had to start school.
They are not alone. The number of 5-year-olds still enrolled in early childhood education, rather than school, doubled from 1464 to 3056 in the decade to 2018.
But they are still rare. That doubling was an increase only from 2.6 per cent of 5-year-olds in 2008 to 4.7 per cent in 2018.
• More schools delay start dates to avoid the heat
• Best time to start school
• The big school shake-up: Parents react to kids unable to speak properly
• Too young? Children to start school aged 4
Internationally, our average school starting age of 5.1 years is the third-youngest of the 32 OECD developed nations. Only Ireland (4.5 years) and Britain (5 years) start school younger, and the OECD average is 6.1 years.
"All our friends outside of Koru send their children to school when they turn 5," says Alice Wapstra, whose son Luca, 4, and daughter Eden, 2, also attend Koru Montessori.
"It's that whole aspersion of, 'You're holding them back,'" she says.
"But actually my kid is doing addition in the thousands, and he's so enthusiastic about it, so why would you not?"
Reasons for starting late
In an influential 2015 paper on "The Parable of the Sower and the long-term effects of early reading", expatriate Kiwi educationalist Dr Sebastian Suggate argues that there is "a right season" to teach reading - and, by extension, to start formal classroom schooling.
Just as the seeds grew only in fertile soil in the Biblical parable, he argues that "instruction begun before the right season would be time-consuming and may reduce time for other important activities, such as language learning.
"However, if left too late, then children would be deprived of important learning opportunities arising from possessing good reading skills."
Suggate's doctoral research at Otago University a decade ago compared children in three state schools, who started school at 5, with children in three Steiner schools, who started school on average aged six and a half.
The state school children aged 5 to 8 had much better reading skills than the Steiner children, who spent the first 18 months of that period in kindergartens where there was lots of play, singing and oral storytelling, but no written language.
But by age 9 the reading skills of the two groups were equal, and by age 12 the Steiner children pulled marginally ahead, especially on actually comprehending what they read.
In his Parable of the Sower article, Suggate concludes: "Given that the early advantage washes out, it can be said ... that teaching before age 6 or 7 is not optimal."
He says children pick up most of their vocabulary before they can read, expanding their repertoire on average from about 50 words at age 18 months to 10,000 words at age 6.
They pick up words naturally with time and experience, so they are better placed to learn the "code" for reading words when they have absorbed more about the way their language works.
AUT education lecturer Dr Neil Boland, who chairs a trust which trains NZ Steiner teachers, says introducing reading and other formal teaching too soon makes children anxious, contributing to rising mental health issues later.
"You can talk about nature deficit disorder, where your children are less engaged with the natural world.
"You learn about insects, plants and animals when you are very young, you put those things down very early in life.
"Also, I think it's the time when you engage and learn how to interact with other people, and you learn how to be within your own body.
"Having those things well developed, that is then the ideal basis on which to build a formal education."
Human development expert Nathan Wallis says children need to develop the more basic parts of their brains, such as memory and emotions, before they tackle complex activities such as reading that require the frontal cortex.
"Letting your children enjoy their childhood and play up to 7 is the best possible start your child can get, and the best inoculation you can get against your child having depression and anxiety as a teenager."
American psychologist Dr Peter Gray has traced steep increases in anxiety, depression and suicide among young Americans since 1950 to an equally dramatic decline in free outside play, as parents have become scared of their children being hurt by cars or criminals and have tied them down in homework and other adult-directed activities.
Gray says play has evolved over millennia so that young humans learn to take control of their own lives and to cooperate with others - two things that are at the core of good lifelong mental health.
Reasons for starting early
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the vast majority of children cope well with starting school at 5 and go on to lead reasonably happy and productive lives.
The Growing Up in NZ study, which is following about 6000 children born in Auckland and the Waikato in 2009-10, found that 73 per cent of mothers, interviewed when their children were 6, said their children had not had any difficulties adapting to school.
Most said their children were "ready for school", "happy to go to school" and even "excited about going to school".
Most of the remaining 27 per cent of mothers said difficulties with the transition lasted less than a month. Only 3 per cent said the difficulties lasted six months or more.
Kerikeri Primary School principal Dr Sarah Brown, who did her 2018 doctoral thesis on the transition from early childhood to school, encourages all her local preschool teachers to tell parents that they don't need to send their children to school on their fifth birthday and that often it is better to "wait that little bit longer".
But she says nine out of 10 children will still say they are ready for school at 5.
"I think the longer in early childhood education, the better for children. But in saying that, I have some that can come in at 5 like a duck to water, it goes wonderfully. I'm saying to parents: you know your child best."
Parents also have to be realistic. Most are not choosing between an ideal of letting their children play freely in nature or cooping them up in desk-bound schools; 96 per cent of 4-year-olds already attend early childhood education (ECE), so the choice is between particular ECE centres and particular schools, with all their imperfections.
In theory, ECE centres should be play-based. Brown says the ECE curriculum Te Whāriki encourages teachers to plan "environments" in which children can learn on their own initiative, whereas the school curriculum sets "achievement objectives" and encourages teachers to achieve planned outcomes in each lesson.
But in practice, when she observed children moving from ECE to school, she found that "schoolification" was common. Three of the six ECE centres she studied had employed primary school teachers to teach literacy and numeracy.
Conversely, Wallis, who visits about four schools a week, estimates that up to 40 per cent of primary schools have adopted play-based learning for new entrants, especially since national standards were abolished from 2018.
"If you go back five years ago it would have been 5 per cent of schools," he says.
ChildForum director Dr Sarah Alexander says we have seen a "blurring" between ECE and schools, so parents need to choose carefully to suit the temperament of each child.
Dr John Boereboom, a former Canterbury University educationalist who has written about the issue for the ChildForum journal, says he would make different choices for each of his own grandchildren.
"One can't wait to start school and she's only 4," he says.
"Whereas I have a grandson who, if we could start him at 7, we would, because he loves to be outside, he loves to be playing. If you force him to sit down in a controlled environment too early, he's just going to end up hating school."
As well as what suits each child, parents need to consider at least four practical matters.
Public schools in New Zealand are free, apart from uniforms and holiday programmes and other generally non-educational costs.
ECE is supposed to be free for 20 hours a week for children aged 3, 4 or 5, but in practice there are usually extra costs.
At Koru Montessori, children are encouraged to stay until they turn 6, but 5-year-olds are required to attend five full days each week, costing $9660 a year.
Work and Income's childcare subsidy ends when a child turns 5, or at their school's next cohort entry date after the child's fifth birthday, unless they have a disability allowance.
In theory, children with extra needs can get Ministry of Education early intervention services such as special teachers and support workers until they start school, even if they wait until 6.
"Early intervention support does not automatically cease when a child turns 5," says ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey.
"Children will have an individual plan, developed carefully by the team around them. This will include plans for transition to school, and further learning support (e.g. from the Communication Service or Ongoing Resourcing Scheme), if required."
But in practice, former early intervention teacher Anita Nicholls says the early intervention budget in each region is capped, so there is often pressure on families to move to the school-based Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) when a child turns 5, to free up funding for younger children.
"It's about funding silos. You have one funding silo designed for under-5s and one for over-5s.
"At the moment it's much easier to get funding for under-5s. When you are over 5 there's a million different funds out there, and that's partly because ORS has arguably been restricted, it hasn't met the needs of the kids that it was set up for."
Since 2017, schools have been allowed to enrol children only in "cohorts" at the start of each term, rather than accepting them whenever they turn 5.
From this year, schools that adopt cohort entry will have to accept children both at the start of each term and on specified dates midway through each term.
The Labour Government has changed the law to stop 4-year-olds enrolling at the start of the term closest to their fifth birthday. But it has kept another part of the 2017 law stating that once a child enrols in school, they must attend regularly or in accordance with their "transition plan" if the school and the ministry have approved a plan.
Finally, Dr Nina Hood, who runs the Education Hub, which summarises education research, admits it can be hard to make research-based decisions if everyone around you is saying, "When you are 5 you go to school."
"If you are not going off to school, and if it's not managed carefully, that can actually influence the child. It's about having really careful conversations with your child and involving them in the process."