Call to lower school age to four

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 11:16 09/09/2012

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Children could be packing their bags to start primary school a year earlier if a proposal to lower the entrance age goes ahead.

The move would see 4-year-olds included on school rolls and would take early childhood education away from private operators and into public hands. The compulsory school age is six, although most schools take children at five.

Manurewa MP Louisa Wall, fresh from a success with her marriage equality bill, is leading the charge.

'Too many of our kids aren't prepared for school,' Wall said. 'It hasn't made sense to me for a long time why we've commodified the early years, making early childhood education only available to those who can afford it.'

Unlike primary and secondary schools, preschool learning is made up from private, community and parent-led centres.

Preschool children receive 20 hours free early childhood education but poorer communities struggle with a lack of centres, transport issues, cultural misunderstandings and extra "hidden" costs.

A South Auckland early childhood education taskforce set up to tackle the problem found only 27 per cent of new entrants have had any form of early childhood education. Nationally, participation rate is 94.7 per cent, with Maori and Pacific Island children at the lower end of the scale.

Wall says a burgeoning birth rate in those vulnerable areas meant the problem would get worse.

'The thinking around allowing schools to take 4-year-olds is that it would immediately meet the need,' Wall said.

It would also save money. To build a new centre for 50 children cost $1.2 million - not including land. Using existing school facilities would solve that problem, Wall said.

Weymouth primary school in South Auckland is one of the first in the country to allow a private preschool provider to build on public land, providing a much- needed learning centre within walking distance for many families.

Being able to drop her 'big kid' at school at the same time as taking the little ones to an on-site early childhood centre has worked wonders for Manukau mum Nga Teariki.

'We love having the kindy onsite,' Teariki said. 'It made the move to primary much easier.'

She noticed a big difference in her son, now five, after going to early childhood before he started school.

'He developed a lot of skills. He learned how to write his name and could count to 30. Now he's in the top reading class.'

Teariki said she didn't think lowering the acceptance age for primary school was a bad idea - especially if it reduced the cost to families.

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Dr Sarah Farquhar, chief executive of ChildForum, said countries which let 4-year-olds go to school, such as the Netherlands, had a high level of academic achievement.

Some principals, including Manurewa East principal Phil Palfrey, agree, at least in theory.

'It would make a difference to a lot of our kids who don't have any preschool experience,' Palfrey said.

'People will think that it's ridiculous and that it's crazy but schools have to embrace new ideas. And if we really want to make a difference, we have to do whatever it takes.'

Chair of the taskforce Colleen Brown said the Government's aim for a 98 per cent participation rate in early childhood education by 2016 meant thinking outside the square. 'Fundamentally we can't afford to rely on building centres with Ministry of Education funding to relieve the pressure. What [Wall] is putting up is an option. If principals want to support that then we need to look at that.'

The taskforce suggestions are now with a Ministry of Education implementation committee.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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