• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 06th August, 2012

Want a head start at school? Be older than your classmates

Children who are among the oldest in their class do better academically than their younger peers, a study of reading and numeracy achievement in Hungary suggests. And which kids benefit most from staying in kindergarten an extra year, so they are older when they start formal school? They’re the ones from less educated families.In Hungary, as in many nations, children are divided into year groups by whether their birthday falls before or after a cut-off date – putting children who are almost a year apart in age into the same elementary school classroom. As it turns out, it’s an advantage to be seven years old when your classmates are six.Those who start late – the older students in each elementary class – do better on tests. This finding is not new, as the study’s authors acknowledge. Those whose birthdays fall just after the cut-off date will be older at the time of testing, can get more out of a school curriculum that is geared for the average child, and their slightly more advanced abilities make them stand out next to their younger counterparts.But what is striking about this new study, carried out by researchers from the Institute of Economics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is the way that children from disadvantaged families benefited most from being older at the start of formal elementary school – and were penalized most for being younger.The quality of preschool Why the gap? The answer may lie in the different abilities of families, kindergartens, and schools to develop children’s skills. It seems that highly-educated families are better able to help their children compensate for being the younger ones in the classroom.Importantly, the research does not suggest that children should simply start school later. Instead, the advantage of later school enrollment is likely based on the quality of the preschool provision children receive, rather than delayed school entry per se. In Hungary, where kindergarten is compulsory from age five, these preschool institutions are better placed to develop the skills needed at a young age than schools because of their different approach to education. The authors say, “The pedagogical programme of kindergartens, deeply rooted in the Montessori tradition, is explicitly aimed at the development of basic competencies, while school-based education is strongly curriculum oriented.” Also, Hungarian schools are more socially segregated than kindergartens.The researchers suggest that children from less educated families may benefit more from a delayed start. “Repeating the school-preparation year in a Hungarian kindergarten develops the competencies of low-status children more than the schools open to them.”Evidence from HungaryThese findings come from a study of national test scores of all Grade 4 and 8 students in Hungary. Researchers examined the effect of school starting age on the standardized national assessment scores of literacy and numeracy. They exploited the natural variation in school starting age based on cut-off dates for school enrollment. In Hungary, school starts during the year children turn six if their birthday falls before the end of May. However, parents and teachers can also delay school start age by a year if the child is deemed not mature enough by age six.Every student in Hungary takes part in the national standardized basic skills assessment in grades 4 and 8. The researchers used these test results to compare achievement in numeracy and literacy for children of low and highly educated mothers. What the research found was that children generally gained from starting school one year later, and the effects were much stronger in the case of students coming from low-educated families. The children of mothers with a higher educational degree benefited far less from a late start. Encouragingly, the benefit from being older than one’s classmates fades by Grade 8. For some children, however, the damage may already be done – especially if they are assigned to a secondary school based on their academic performance to that point.Lessons for education policy?Recent debates in the UK have charged that the revised preschool “nappy curriculum” over-emphasizes formal desk-based lessons. This research suggests that children may benefit from high-quality preschool that helps them learn basic skills – how to speak, listen, dress themselves and use the toilet, look after their belongings, make friends, and follow rules – while starting formal schooling later. Plenty of time in a high-quality preschool may be particularly important for children from disadvantaged families.Further research will be needed to establish the effects of starting school later in other countries with different school and pre-school systems. Despite this, the research highlights the importance of being ready for school before starting. **********References:Altwicker-Hámori, S. & Köllő, J. (2012). Whose children gain from starting school later? – evidence from Hungary. Educational Research and Evaluation: An International Journal on Theory and Practice, 18(5), 459-488.LinksBright children should start school at six says academic

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