Ready for school?
The dilemma of when a child's ready to start school isn't new, and has become more complicated.
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.

Here are some guidelines for bewildered parents:

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 1 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 SA'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 1.

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

Her daughter Talya had missed the cut-off admission age for 2002 by 11 days, which meant she'd have had to wait another whole 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'd 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's 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 she passed a school-readiness test. Two 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 1 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 admitted, 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, it 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. This, she stresses, 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."

Pearson adds that in her view, a child's school-ready when she's "physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually ready to tackle the activities of the Grade 1 class with enthusiasm and enjoyment", she says.

How does one test or determine school readiness?
Most pre-schools have some form of school-readiness assessments. These are usually done in the child's final year of pre-school and give parents and educators an idea of whether a child will copeeffectively in Grade 1. (If your child isn't at a pre-school, contact your local primary school or school clinic for advice.)

Pettipher stresses, however, that these assessments are far from perfect and aren't necessarily valid predictors of future school success. She believes it's crucial to assess the child holistically.

"Something might happen in a child's life (such as a parent's illness) which will affect their performance. The child must be assessed regularly and you must look at the whole picture.

A child who's sharing a bedroom with 12 other children won't have the same amount of stimulation as another child in more fortunate circumstances. Similarly, a child who can't afford to eat regularly won't perform as well as one who eats three nutritious meals a day. All these things play a part."

School-readiness tests generally assess a number of learning areas, explains Cape Town-based occupational therapist Jill Hosking. These include:

Visual perceptual skills (being able to process and interpret what you're seeing), including visual discrimination, which is the ability to see similarities and differences between objects, pictures and symbols.

This enables the child to sort, match and categorise and is an essential skill for reading, spelling and maths; visual sequencing (the ability to arrange objects, pictures, shapes, letters and numbers in a logical order); copying skills (such as being able to copy a pattern); visual memory (the ability to remember details such as shape, colour, size and sequence), and right/left concept (i.e. the dominant hand/eye/foot, which a child should have by the age of five.

If not, it could indicate an underlying problem like poor bilateral integration, which could result in learning difficulties.)

Motor skills include gross motor (which refers to the movements of the large muscle groups that enable a child to kick a ball, for instance) and fine motor skills (which refers to the movements of the small muscles of the hands, wrists and fingers ­- eye-hand co-ordination is a part of this).

Fine motor skills include pencil grip and accuracy of lines. Gross motor skills include balance and ball skills.

Planning involves following instructions, both in terms of fine motor skills ("draw a line from the edge of the page to the circle in the middle") and gross motor skills ("take two steps forward and three backwards"). It also involves planning and carrying out self-initiated tasks.

Emotional readiness is a lot harder to determine, but how children actually handle the tests and the test situation is a useful indicator, says Hosking.

Surely starting a child in school as early as possible gives them a head start in life?
Not necessarily ­ although a child may get a head start initially, it may be to their detriment in the long run (even if it's significantly cheaper than keeping the child at pre-school for another year ­ another common and valid argument).

Starting "big school" is a huge milestone for a child and most teachers admit younger children usually battle more than older ones, at least initially.

"At five-and-­a-half, age is a big deal," points out Phyfer. "If you have children in a class who're aged from five-and-a-half to seven, that's a huge gap those five-and-a-half-year-olds have to deal with."

A Grade One teacher noted that older kids are usually much more adept in terms of listening skills and memory.

"They can listen to instructions and are better able to remember their jersey and their school bag, for instance. They're also usually better able to part with their parents.

"Experts say children experience success very intensely ­ and success breeds more success. If children master things with comparative ease, they're more likely to be positive about their schoolwork.

"However, if they battle to accomplish tasks ­- especially when their classmates are managing well -­ this could negatively affect their self-esteem, which could in turn affect their attitude towards school in general.

As Phyfer observes: "If you perceive yourself as a failure in Grade 1, that's a huge blow to your confidence."

Younger children also tend to be easy prey for bullies, further adding to their negative experience of school.

Obviously, there are always exceptions. A lot depends on the individual child, the school and especially the teacher.

But sending a young, emotionally immature child to school where she'll be confronted with a class of 50 children and a teacher who, however willing and motivated, simply doesn't have the time to support each child, is not the best way to ensure his success.

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