Over the weekend I met my old friend and benefactor in secondary school Prof Chege Waruinge and in the course of our discussions, the subject of school age for children cropped up.
The professor intimated that there is a modern school of thought that advocates for children to commence primary school at the age of seven because at that point, they are more physically and mentally developed.
The Education Act gives the right to compulsory primary education to every child between the ages of six and 14.
Every household with young children around the age of five always asks the universal question; “Should I send my child to school even though they may be the youngest in their class?”
The answer is not always simple but what is now obvious is that there are benefits for children at the older end of their cohort. It is known as “relative age” and the benefits of being at the right part of it can last into adulthood.
Perhaps my case will demonstrate why starting school too early can be a disadvantage.
I started school at the very early age, at the time, of five largely because my birthday falls in the last quartile of the year in September. But there is another reason.
My mother was a teacher and in fact before primary school I had attended a pilot nursery school under a tree in Mwea, which my mother was running. So, because of my privileged position I was able to start school relatively early.
Apart from being the youngest in my class, I was also the smallest in physical size, which meant I could not compete with others in sport and other physical activities. Fortunately, I was quite a “mighty atom” academically and I was always in the first five.
Because of my diminutive size I was babied by everyone, including the teachers and I kind of got to expect it later in life.
The girls in my class were already well developed and it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between being babied and being “baebed” which at one time got me and one of the older girls into very serious trouble!
I also got to used to the idea that leadership would always come from the older students, not me.
This situation continued well into my secondary school where I found boys who were even older. I recall that in Form One, three of my classmates were already married and had children who were going to school!
Nevertheless, I enjoyed one of the fringe benefits of being small in that no-one was in the least bit interested in bullying me because there were no prizes for bullying a midget!
On a side note, that is how I got into motorcycle racing because at the time it was the only sport where the older boys could not challenge me! Of course, some people did not approve of my choice. The rest is history.
Studies have shown that early schooling increases a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, in particular for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the initial advantage in cognitive tests diminishes in later grades, suggesting that children who start later ultimately catch up and excel.
On the other hand, data from previous studies has shown that children with a higher relative age received better grades at school than their peers.
Relative age at school influences the formation of many behavioural traits and creates long-lasting disparities between individuals born on different sides of the cut-off dates and may even impact our career prospects as adults.
People who are relatively older are more likely to end up in positions of leadership and to succeed in more competitive environments.
Notwithstanding, I am not saying that there is a silver bullet to this question. Each case needs to be assessed individually.
Keeping children back is a trade-off. There is often a substantial cost in one year of additional kindergarten and it is not always clear that the benefits to your child will be worth it.
But I see another angle to this question.
In today’s world, parents are often too “busy” to make time to be with their children and the sooner they can send them off to someone else to carry the burden, the better.
Children are being sent off to play groups at the age of two. Parents do not want the burden of potty training and cleaning up after the mess or of inculcating the building blocks of character and responsibility. We are too busy keeping up with the rat race out there in the world and making money.
The ongoing debate regarding the Competence Based Curriculum is a pointer that parents don’t want to get involved in their children’s education by helping and checking their homework.
I recall in our days we had to check and make sure that our children did their homework and sign it before they left for school the next day.
My son, Gitau, was very smart in primary school and whenever he had knitting or sewing homework, he would seek the assistance of Esther, the house help, whom he would pay from proceeds of rabbits he had sold to his teacher, Mrs Binns!
Are parents today abdicating their role as the primary caregivers to their young ones and leaving everything to the school?