More NSW parents hold children back from starting school

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The number of children who turned six by July in the year they begin kindergarten now makes up 28 per cent of enrolments in New South Wales (NSW). A decade ago, this figure was just 19 per cent.

It’s a trend that now sees thousands more public school students in NSW starting school later than they did ten years ago, with the number of students who had already turned six by July in the year they enter kindergarten climbing from 13,209 in 2012, to 19,019 in 2022.

According to rules for NSW public school,  children can start kindergarten as young as four, as long as they turn five before July 31 in the year of their enrolment, but, by law, they must be enrolled in school by their sixth birthday. It’s a rule that means, from student to student, a kindergarten classes can have a span of age differences of up to 19 months.

The new figures have revived debates about school starting age and prompted some education experts to call for the school starting age to be raised.

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But a spokesman for NSW Education Minister Prue Car ruled out a review of the school starting age in the state.

“There are no plans for a review of the age at which children can start school. Labor supports parents having some flexibility to decide when to enrol their children in school,” the spokesman said.

With the age difference between those starting kindergarten creating challenges for both children and educators,

the opposition education spokeswoman, Sarah Mitchell, said a review of the school starting age is appropriate.

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“I think it is time the school starting age in NSW was reviewed, particularly to look at reducing the age difference between kindergarten students,” she said.

Australian Childcare Alliance NSW chief executive Chiang Lim also believes the school starting age should be raised and repeated his call for the current differences between states and territories to be addresses by introducing uniform school starting date rules across the country.

Currently, both the ACT and Victoria allow a student to start school if their fifth birthday falls on or before 30 April. In the Northern Territory and Queensland, however, the cut-off is 30 June.

“I would say NSW is a bit of an outlier compared to other states,” Mr Chiang said.

“The issue of children being sent too early when they’re not ready causes problems for the child in terms of how they adjust at school.”

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The trend of holding children back is especially pronounced in Sydney, with boys more likely to be held back than girls, even though researchers say starting boys later has no long-term academic benefits.

University of New England research shows students who were held back received slightly higher results in NAPLAN results on average in year three but that advantage dissipates by the time students reach year nine.

Dr Sally Larsen is co-authors of that research and believes that, to reduce the gap, the cut-off date should be brought forward to April.

“In terms of development, a year is quite a long time. If you have kids who should be in year one, there is a possibility that they will get bored and misbehave; I don’t think parents consider that aspect of it,” she said.

“In NSW, we have this particularly unusual situation where you can get a 19-month gap … We have the widest age range, it hasn’t been tinkered with for 36 years, it is this historical policy which just continues on and on.”

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The current NSW school starting age rules were introduced in 1987 after the state followed Victoria and moved the cut-off to July. Although that policy was abandoned in Victoria seven years later, NSW maintained it.

In 2024, students in South Australia will be able to attend a mid-year school intake for students born from May to October, which means that students who start mid-year will complete six terms of the first year of schooling. The move there aims to reduce the large age gaps and differences in student development.

For the majority of NSW private schools, rules stipulate that a student must be five years of age by 31 March in the year they commence kindergarten, with some educators within that system saying that a later start date meant students were mature and more able to manage emotions, engage in effective communication and build positive relationships with fellow students.

Australian National University Professor Benjamin Edwards said research across several years showed showed that more affluent areas of Sydney sent their children to school later, while migrants are more likely to send them to school earlier, possibly related to high – and rising – childcare costs.

“What’s amazing to me is how resilient this phenomenon is over such a long period. It is a very Sydney thing,” he said.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]