Too much too soon: The Ideal school-starting age

MsT looks into early childhood education to determine when our children are ready for school


Anum* is barely over her fourth birthday celebrations and her parents, Shumaila* and Adeel*, have already planned an overnight stay at one of Karachi’s most prestigious schools to secure her an admission.

“The queue tends to build up fast and even if you reach at seven in the morning, there will be 20 people before you,” explains Shumaila. “People often ask their domestic staff to wait in line but I have heard the school doesn’t appreciate that. Therefore, Adeel and I are actually planning on taking our sleeping bags and camping at the gates.”

Shumaila and Adeel are hardly the only parents employing such extreme measures for their child’s education. Saadia Pasha* gave up her entire maternity leave to search for a montessori that would enroll her toddler. “Spaces in the best schools get filled and even though my son Ali wouldn’t be starting school for another two years, I just had to ensure his name was entered somewhere.” In fact, one can credit Saadia for having waited for Ali to be born before springing into action. Some like Maheen Ali* were at it during pregnancy! “Thankfully, I secured a teaching position at this school during the time and they gave preference to my unborn child,” admits Maheen. “Otherwise, my son would never have found a spot in a school where couples register themselves even before conceiving!”

Unfortunately, these three mothers are amongst thousands of parents who jump into the rat race for their toddlers’ education upon the very mention of the word ‘baby.’ They begin to run amok for forms, open days and interviews themselves and even send their children for tuition or grooming classes before the youngsters have uttered their first word. “Children generally start nursery at the age of three and grade school by five,” says Anila Weldon, founder of WeldonMoms, a support group for expecting, new and existing mothers. “But the obsession with securing admission begins even earlier – at 14 to 16 months. ”

The fear that your child will get left behind

The underlying idea behind this obsession is that attending a good montessori will be a child’s gateway to a good preparatory school and finally, a good grade school. One can say this is a vicious cycle without which most parents feel their child will be left behind.

“The fear is real, especially for parents who wish to send their child to a particular school,” explains Anila. “But a child will certainly get into a school, considering that there are so many. It just might not be one of your choice.”

Anila’s response, however, seems to imply that parents are making mountains out of molehills. Grandmother Sultana Khurshid agrees with Anila and says that, “At times, I think the children are just subconsciously used by parents to outdo one another. It is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy — everyone just wants to be the best at everything, including this.”

Why are some parents so overwrought with their children’s education?

Exactly what it is that has bred this culture remains a mystery. When children of the world start formal education at the age of five or six, why is it that parents in Pakistan are sending their offspring to school even earlier?

At the very basic level, this could be indicative of a demographic shift which has increased the percentage of working women in our society. Gone are the days when a woman’s field of responsibility was confined to the four walls of her home. “Women of today are stepping out and earning money, alongside their male counterparts,” says grandmother Samina Aleem*. “In the yesteryears, they would remain indoors and be homemakers.” Samina also cites the rise of the nuclear family as one of the reasons for the many day-cares, montessoris and kindergartens that have sprung up of late. “The concept of joint families is diminishing so if a mother is going back to work post childbirth, who will look after the child?” questions Samina. One could leave the child with a maid but proper institutions can provide a safe, secure and educational environment where a child can grow and also play with other children.

Ayesha Alim, a certified montessori teacher, highlights another ‘convenience factor’ that encourages parents to literally dump their child at school. “Sometimes, we get children whose mother tongue isn’t Urdu or whose parents are not conversant in English,” shares Ayesha. “These parents approach us to ensure that their child learns English properly and has an acceptable Urdu pronunciation.” No doubt, parents wish to raise well-behaved and well-spoken children to boost their confidence and chances of success in the modern world.

Is it too early to send your child to school?

While some might consider it cruel to subject children to a stringent lifestyle at such a young age, there is some scientific evidence that supports the concept. According to paediatrician Dr Sakina Rizvi, during the first five or six years of life, a child’s brain undergoes enormous change. “Parents must provide an environment conducive to these changes and for most children, that environment is available only in the classroom. This is especially true for children who hail from an under-privileged background.” Saadia, for example, admits that ideally — she would have kept Ali at home till he turned four as she is a stay-at-home mother. “But in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t otherwise he wouldn’t have been attending one of Karachi’s top schools today. It was all worth the hassle.”

Anila, on the other hand, has a different approach to early childhood education. “During the early years, children need to play more rather than be regimented — that is how they learn. Also, they learn more at home, so if you are sending your child to school for early learning, your objective isn’t being met.” Anila also disagrees with the idea that early enrollment into a good school will breed good children. “Sending a two-year-old to school so that they learn English or good manners is not the right motivation.”

Unfortunately, the debate isn’t as black and white as we would like. Within the spheres of learning at home and at school, there are multitudinal smaller issues to consider. Back in September 2013, about 130 educationists from the UK launched the ‘Too Much Too Soon’ campaign to advocate the extension of informal, play-based learning and to delay the start of formal education. They did so via a letter published in The Daily Mail, calling for the national school-starting age to be changed from four to seven, in line with other European countries enjoying higher academic achievement and child well-being.

The letter was released based on numerous studies that supported its claims. According to David Whitebread, a researcher from the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge and also one of the signatories of the letter, there have been many studies that have resulted in superior learning and motivation arising from playful learning, as opposed to instructional. Nueroscientific research has indicated that play-based activity stimulates synaptic growth in the frontal cortex of the brain, responsible for better mental functioning. This would lend credence to Dr Sakina’s idea that the young brain is more absorbent but it also highlights the issue of formal versus informal education. Other studies cited by David have proved that physical and imaginative activity supports children in developing emotional and social skills which are crucial during the early years. So perhaps it would be okay to enroll your child in a playgroup early but delay their entry into grade school?

Within educational research, most studies considered by the campaign have shown superior motivation and higher academic and practical achievements by children who attended play-based pre-school programmes, especially those from disadvantaged families.  The campaign also cites a study from New Zealand which compared two groups of children: those who joined schools at five and seven. The results showed no difference in the children’s reading abilities but the ones who started at five had poor comprehension of the text and a negative attitude towards reading altogether.

Internationally, the debate as to the ideal school-starting age is gaining momentum and many countries, within Europe in particular, are delaying the legal age requirements. This makes one wonder if this change would be beneficial for local schools in the long run. “If my child gets into a particular school, I boast to everyone about it which generates publicity for the school,” explains Anila. “If he doesn’t get in, I crib about it and still generate publicity.” So while there may be mixed verdicts for parents and children, the school emerges as the indisputable winner.

Regardless, Samina seems to resent this hype regarding children’s education, claiming that she barely sees her granddaughter anymore. “At just four, the poor kid goes to kindergarten, followed by grooming classes to prepare her for a good grade school.” Sultana also agrees and says that, “Education is indeed important but turning your child into a robot with thousands of things on their schedule is simply not justified. Children are children and we should let them be just that. You never get childhood back, whether it’s yours or your children’s, so why complicate it unnecessarily?”


*Names have been changed for privacy

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, February 1st, 2015.


Pauline Hull | 6 years ago | Reply

England is always listed as having an age 5 school start, but the truth is very different.

Legislation says a child doesn't have to begin their education until the term following their 5th birthday, but a culture of 'encouraging' ever earlier enrolment means children start at age 4.

For summer born children (born April 1st - August 31st) this means starting school a whole year earlier than they legally have to, and if parents try to wait until their child reaches compulsory school age, they face seeing their child a) miss out on their foundation school year (Reception) and be placed straight into Year 1, b) start in Reception but then be forced to skip a year at some point later on so that they're 'back' with their 'chronological' peer group, and/or c) miss out on a place at the school of their choice because the admissions process does not provide fair and equal access to school preferences for summer born children unless their parent agrees to enrol them early.

Also worthy of note is that there is a campaign in Northern Ireland to increase the school starting age, as many parents and educational professionals believe age 4 is too young.

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