How to determine when kids should start school


The age at which South African children are allowed to start school doesn't necessarily coincide with their intellectual and emotional resources to do so.

The dilemma of when a child's ready to start school isn't new.

In recent years, however, it's become even more complicated as the age at which children are permitted to start school keeps changing.

At what age can a child start school in South Africa?

A South African child may start school at the age of five-and-a-half, provided she turns six by June 30 of her Grade one year.

By law, a child must start school by the year in which she turns seven.

Why has there been so much confusion in the past few years about the age at which children can start school?

After 1994, when South Africa's education policy underwent key changes, it was decided children should start school in the year in which they turned seven.

According to Johannesburg-based educational psychologist, Raine Pettipher, this was partly due to the huge costs involved in many children having to repeat grade one.

In 2001, however, a Johannesburg mother, Doreen Harris, challenged the Department of Education's admission ruling.

Harris' daughter, Talya had missed the cut-off admission age for 2002 by 11 days, which meant she'd have to wait another year to start school. Harris felt the policy unfairly discriminated against children on the grounds of age and was against the best interests of children like Talya, who had successfully passed school-readiness tests.

The Constitutional Court agreed. This caused a furore. Among other things, the ruling opened up the possibility that other parents might follow Harris' example.

So the Education Department relaxed the admission age until further legislation could be put into place.

Parents who felt their child was ready for school could apply for admission, provided there was a place for the child and provided the child passed a scholl-readiness test. A few years later, there's a little more clarity around this ruling.

Children may now start school if they turn six by the end of June of their Grade one year. And, the department stresses, no child may now be tested for school-readiness unless they've already been accepted by the school.

Once they've been granted admission, however, they'll usually be assessed to determine where they should be placed within the class.

The Department says denying a child school entry on the basis that they're not deemed "school-ready" is discriminatory. So it's now up to parents to decide when their child should start school within the government's framework.

What is school-readiness exactly?

School-readiness has been a controversial issue for years. In the past, says Pettipher, is referred to fixed standards of physical, intellectual and social development, sufficient to enable children to meet school requirements and assimilate the content of the curriculum.

In other words, there was a certain level children needed to reach before they were deemed "school-ready".

These days, experts say the trend is more towards making schools ready for pupils, rather than the other way around.

However, the interpretation of this concept differs dramatically, depending on individual schools.

In practical terms, most of us think of school-readiness in terms of academic skills - whether a child can hold a pen, sit quietly, listen to and understand instructions.

But nowadays, say educators, school readiness has as much to do with emotional readiness as with cognitive ability.

Cape Town-based Montessori pre-school teacher, Delores Phyfer, agrees: "When it comes to coping at school, emotional readiness is far more important than academic ability."

She maintains emotional readiness involves having the confidence and self-esteem to cope with all kinds of situations than a seven-year-old. She also stresses that this is a developmental rather than an intellectual issue.

It simply means that, developmentally, a five-year-old's usually less self-assured and able to cope with situations than a seven-year-old. 

A child is school-ready when they are physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually ready to tackle the activities of the grade one class with enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Did your child have an early start at school? What signs of readiness did your child show? What advice would you give other parents who are in the process of sending their kids to school? Share your experience and thoughts by emailing and we may publish your story. Should you wish to remain anonymous, please let us know.

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