23 February 2024

Letter from the Editor: Should boys start school at six?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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As Googong Primary opened in 2023, students, parents and staff gathered to start the year. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

A quarter century ago, my twin boys started at a tiny little village school down the road from our place.

There were 16 or so kids, and the place functioned more like an extended family than a classroom. Kids treated each other like siblings, parents all knew each other, and as with all families, there were lumps and bumps along the way.

My two boys were turning six that year, but one of the other children in their class was a full 18 months younger than them, and the difference was stark in every way. Socially, academically, personally – this was a child who should not have been at school.

This week, hundreds of five-year-old children began kindergarten. Should many of the boys have stayed in preschool instead?

The age at which school starts is, increasingly, a stratified and often income-based equation. The wealthier parents are, the more likely their children will start school later. They have access to childcare, can meet the costs and careers are less likely to be impeded.

And no parent needs to be told, with a massive mountain of scientific evidence in front of them, that most boys are significantly slower to mature than girls are.

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In addition to maturity and coping skills, boys often begin school with lower fine motor coordination and verbal skills. Many struggle with the expectations that they will sit still, play nice and observe orderly social norms.

In the past, there was more time for the boys to catch up. Kindergarten used to be a time for learning how to exist comfortably in a group, exploring the world, and understanding what school was all about.

Now, it’s learning from an earlier and earlier age. There are mounting consequences for children who fall behind from the beginning and by the end of primary school it is often too late to remedy the situation.

Where once girls were disadvantaged by social and cultural roles, they now succeed above and beyond most boys, but disengaged boys feel they can’t learn and stop trying by the early teen years. It’s very hard to fix that.

This has nothing to do with intellectual capacity but is deeply connected to maturity, focus, and the teenage male brain’s capacity to act with foresight and make good decisions.

Boys are generally more likely than girls to be in the bottom third of ATAR results. Boys’ school attendance rates are much lower than girls and they are more likely to be excluded from school. Nationally, 84 per cent of girls finished Year 12 in 2021, but the completion rate for boys is only 74.9 per cent.

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So, do we need to create a more nuanced approach to school start dates that recognises and deals with the realities for boys? Would it make more sense to hold boys back until they are six?

Across much of Europe, school begins at six. The Finnish education system sits at the top of EU educational outcomes and has for many years. There, school begins at seven.

Every Finnish child has a legal right to high-quality preschool education. Fees are capped by the state and access is free for low-income families. There is a 98 per cent take-up rate for optional preschool at the age of six, where the focus is on socialisation, play and “learning to learn”.

It seems unlikely that we’d shift our whole school system to starting at six. But perhaps we could encourage that more strongly as an option and empower schools to turn away five-year-olds who are clearly not ready to begin learning. Many of them would be boys and many of those boys would thrive on a little more space and time before entering a classroom.

A system that backed up that recognition, rather than our current relentless focus on academic success, might serve all our kids better.

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davidmaywald10:29 am 13 Feb 24

If girls had 9% lower high school completion than boys, record low literacy rates, and three men graduated uni for every two women, there would be a nationwide political and social movement to “close the gender gap”. It would be all over the media, protests, campaigns, speeches, plans, promises, and action… The opposite is occurring in Australia, we accept these huge gaps and turn away… Male underperformance in education has been visible to parents and policymakers for decades. The lack of comprehensive action to address male disadvantage in education is saying to boys and young men that they don’t matter, and that we don’t care about their future.

davidmaywald6:53 am 04 Feb 24

Our education systems are structurally biased against boys and young men, who are being disadvantaged on several levels. This is visible in the high school completion rates (cited in the article), in standardised test results, and in the mix of women/men going through to higher education (a small gap at preschool opens to a huge chasm by university):
– Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data for 2022 shows that boys are 9% less likely to remain in high school “the apparent retention rate to year 12 was… higher for females (85%) than males (76%)”
– The most recent NAPLAN results show year 9 literacy for boys falling to a record low, with 18% of boys below the minimum level for writing (one-fifth of high school boys being unable to write at a barely acceptable level, which will burden them for life)
– Workplace Gender Equality Agency has data showing that inequality has increased at university, in 2007 there were 46% more women completing courses than men, by 2019 there were 53% more women completing courses than men

Some boys will benefit from being held back. This will also help the girls and teachers in their class. For example, 14-yo girls and 15-yo boys are likely to be similar in maturity/cognitive development.

But aside from age, there are many changes that would benefit the whole system: increased physical activity/sport/exercise; behaviour management that accepts the inherent differences between boys and girls (boys are more physical and they learn in different ways); vastly more positive messaging for boys and young men; more positive male role models (especially male English teachers); catering for the needs of all children rather than focusing on girls (who have been outperforming for decades); etc…

GrumpyGrandpa6:49 pm 03 Feb 24

In an era of equity, equality and non-gender bias, having a discussion about holding boys back a year, seems to break all of the rules.

The other side of this discussion would be to start boys at 5 and hold the girls back to age 6, (to enable the boys an extra year of education to catch up).

Hmmm. Gender-bias has two sides doesn’t it? I don’t think we should be going there.

Maybe the answer to the author’s dilemma is seperate schools for boys and girls?

Martin Keast1:18 pm 03 Feb 24

Currently this is up to the parents – there is no legal requirement to start a children at 5 years of age in school. Compulsory schooling must start by age 6. The real trouble is that many parents are struggling to afford mortgages and cost of living generally and thus want to get their child into school so they can work without paying crippling day care costs (expensive because of the unbelievable amount of regulations day care and preschools are required to comply with). Maybe address the excessive cost of government regulations and compliance across the board from early child care/learning to school to housing? The excessive building regulations the ACT government imposes are very costly to people.

I started school at four in a reasonable sized country town and after the first day walked to school by myself. I insisted. However, the school was just down the road and I suspect my mother watched me from outside the house get there safely. In that school it was kindergarten, then for those who were struggling a class between kindergarten and first class called, from memory, ‘transition’, to give the children struggling another year before first class. I missed out on transition and was put straight up into first class. From my childish memory, the children who went into transition, were those who had not leant to tie their shoelaces and were still wetting themselves. I’m sure there were other things too, but what my childish self remembers, does indicate not coping yet.

Maybe reintroduce something like ‘transition’ for those who need another ‘gentler’ year before first class. Time to mature more.

William Newby10:19 am 03 Feb 24

It is a valid question to ask, what is happening now with the rapid decline of male students graduating from universities is of major concern.
Young males are over represented in mental health problems, suicides, work place deaths, drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, the perpetrators of major crime.
Yet we as a society do nothing about this, in fact we appoint a Minister for Women only. We are ok with 63% of our public servants now being female, we are ok with the majority of our prisoners being male, we focus on victims of domestic violence yet we do nothing to look into obvious patterns as to who and why these events occur.
At a Federal level the likes of Katie Gallagher are more worried about promoting every female to CEO over heaven forbid a man, but we are ok to ignore all the things that are clearly wrong with men and male society.
The man hating needs to cease, if we really wanted equality we would demand a member for Men in parliament but we all know the very idea would be screamed down in parliament.
Boys of today, the men of tomorrow need a lot of help today in order to improve society for us all tomorrow.

The entire curriculum has shifted over the past few decades to shift to teaching girls. As they were always behind.

Now we have male bashing articles and calling out that male only schools exist.

How can we have articles that both men learn differently and we shouldn’t have single gendered schools.

Next thing you’ll claim that men have lower IQ.

Much – and I mean much – of what we do to young kids these days is nothing short of child abuse…and no, I’m not being dramatic.

No television for them, preferably at all, but at least until they’re around 7 years old.

Breastfeeding, and no baby formula. (I can just hear the cats chiming in now: “but what if this? But what if that?”)

Two parents at home, mum and dad, and if the parents can’t get along with each other, then they need to know to toughen and smarten up, and bloody well try, because it’s character building, in case no-one from the decadent a therefore limp wristed society never heard of it

Start school probably around age 7. Home-schooling, especially in today’s woke environment, is a must. The child can easily get the social interactions they need elsewhere, especially if the parents aren’t lazy about it.

I could go on..

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