Question: At what age should children begin formal education? Is it the same age for literacy and maths? Are we actually harming children by having them start so young in the UK?

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  1. My expertise isn’t really in this area but I’ve been doing a bit of research as tonight’s live chat was so quiet! From what I can find most studies addressing this look at younger vs. older children within the same year group, e.g. 5-5.5 vs 5.5-6, rather than starting at 4 vs 6 for example. It’s hard to compare different countries that start at different ages as there are so many factors other than age that differ between the samples.

    A study carried out in Croatia (summarised here:, full pdf: compared children starting at 6yrs 5 months – 6yrs 8 months to those starting between 6 yrs 9 months and 7 years 4 months. At 10 years old there was a small difference in achievement across most subjects between the older and younger groups, but this difference was no longer significant at 14 years. From the literature they review in their introduction it seems as though most studies that have found differences in achievement do so across all subjects, although one subject found differences in maths and science but not English language.

    If you look at your last question from the other point of view and ask if starting later puts children at a disadvantage, then evidence from New Zealand suggests that by age 10, children who started learning to read at 7 (in Steiner schools) had caught up with those who started learning to read at 5:


  2. Jaymo: Not really my field I’m afraid; so I’ll leave it to others to comment!


  3. Regardless of the age at which children start school their age needs to be taken into account in assessments of their ability . This has been explained beautifully and clearly in a blog post by Professor Dorothy Bishop at Oxford. I highly recommend it – focused on summer born children who start school at 4.

    It seems to me that we don’t really know whether starting school young actively causes harm but evidence from international studies such as PISA suggests that, either way, starting school later doesn’t -particularly when a later start to formal education is combined with high quality play-based kindergarten.


  4. Hi Jaymo

    I don’t really have anything to add to the other answers but I would point out that we’d need to define what we mean by ‘formal education’ to answer this question.

    My hunch (with no supporting evidence!) is that getting children to sit at desks and engage in the type of activities normally associated with secondary schools from a very early age is likely to be harmful. My rationale is that a critically important part of learning involves physical interactions with the environment and learning how objects behave (this notion is somewhat formalised in the writings of Piaget, 1954 and theories of ’embodied cognition’) so removing such opportunities is potentially detrimental to children.

    Conversely, providing opportunities for children to socialise with other children and have access to environments that might otherwise be unavailable (e.g. sandpits) – especially for children from low socioeconomic groups – might be extremely beneficial.





  1. Does it depend on how we are teaching them. Using phonics at a young age is a real challenge, whereas they can often recognise words, from a younger age, on things that really interest them, like toys, sweet wrappers and games.