Fewer children start school at age four

The number of children starting school at age four continues to decline.

Last January, 17% – about one in six – of junior infants were four years old, up from 47% twenty years ago.

In raw numbers, 10,483 of 63,583 toddlers in the 2021-22 school year were aged four, up from 25,662 of 55,236 in 2001-02, according to the Department for Education.

Parental decisions to wait until a child is five years old before sending them to a ‘big school’ are increasingly attributed to Ireland’s universal free early education programme.

A significant increase in the school entry age can be attributed to the introduction of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) program in 2010, initially a one-year programme.

The trend accelerated after ECCE became a two-year program in 2018, doubling the number of participants. In the 2021-22 year, there were 107,788 enrollments, or 96% of all eligible children.

Under ECCE rules, a child can start the program, which runs from September to June, from the age of two years and eight months.

Between the school years beginning in September 2015 and September 2021, the proportion of toddlers turning four in January after enrollment fell from 32% to 17%.

Prior to ECCE, the availability and cost of child care would have been determining factors in working parents’ decisions about when to send a child to school.

Legally, children can be enrolled in school from the age of four and must have started their formal education by the age of six.

However, within these parameters, admissions practices vary, often based on demand and availability.

When schools are overcrowded and use selection criteria, they may favor an older child.

On the other hand, a principal who struggles to maintain student numbers may encourage the enrollment of younger children.

The increase in the age of entry to school is probably linked to another trend evident in departmental statistics: the drop in primary school repeaters, which fell from nearly 5,500 in 2001-02 to less than 2 000 last year.

Among junior and senior infants, where repetition is most common, the number rose from 2,793 to 949 over the period,

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