Is four too young?

Teachers approve of a September-only start, but not all academics agree, reports Helen Ward

laura warren was pleased her daughter Amelia started school aged 43Z4 in January rather than the previous September. But from next year, all children starting at Aylesford primary in Kent will begin in September. The change comes after inspectors said the school could do better if all pupils had a full year in reception.

Ms Warren, whose daughter is now nine, said: "One reason I chose the school was because it had two intakes. My child is now above average for Year 5.

Ofsted said children who had come in January were achieving less, but I think by the end of primary the disparity is not so evident."

England and Wales have a compulsory starting age of five, the lowest in Europe, apart from Northern Ireland. A "rising five" policy meant most children would be at least 43Z4 when they began school. But as more authorities and schools switch to September starts, pupils are starting younger.

Caroline Sharp of the National Foundation for Educational Research said there were two main reasons for the change: money and standards. "The introduction of the foundation stage in 2000 has meant more schools decided to take in children earlier," she said. "They look at the key stage 1 results and see the summer-born children do less well and the autumn-born children do better." But it has not been proven whether this is due to the age or entry policy.

"A child of four may feel they are less able because the gap between what they are able to do and other children in their class can do is so much bigger," she said. "Children compare themselves. Do we want children to feel like failures at such a young age?"

Nottingham city council is considering changing from three-point to single-point entry in September 2008 and two-thirds of parents support this. St Ann's Well nursery and infant in Nottingham introduced a September start for all reception children this year. It has a foundation stage unit where children begin on the Wednesday after their third birthday and attend for half-days until the September of the year they turn five, when they go full-time.

Tweseldown infants school in Hampshire has had one-point entry for about 10 years. June Brown, the head, said although all children start in September, the oldest attend for mornings-only for the first week; those who will be five in the spring term continue to do half-days until half-term and the youngest do half-days until the beginning of December.

She said: "I wouldn't want to have three intakes a year where each term there is a new upheaval and you don't have the whole class settled until the end of reception."

At Glemsford primary in Suffolk, there are 16 pupils in Sue Golding's reception class. Last term there were just 10 and in a few weeks there will be 10 more.

She said: "Children who start in April are at a double disadvantage. They have only one term and they find themselves in a bigger class than those already there."

Liz Steele, the head, said: "We get funding for pupils who are in school in January. If we take them after Easter, we don't get funding until the following financial year.

"I don't know what the right answer is. Whenever children start there are pros and cons. But I don't particularly like the three-entry system because summer-born children find it challenging."

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