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The formal school starting age: is younger better? - Embassy of Finland, Canberra : Current Affairs

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News, 9/27/2016 | Embassy of Finland, Canberra

The formal school starting age: is younger better?

Playtime at a Finnish school
Playtime at a Finnish school

The Tasmanian Government is currently in the process of tabling a new Education Act for debate in Tasmania's Parliament. After backing down from its plans to lower the compulsory school starting age amid criticism from the childcare sector in August, the Tasmanian Government is now seeking Upper House support to overhaul the Tasmanian education system. The bill suggests a voluntary school starting age of four and a half with options to start children in kindergarten when they are three and half years of age. Tasmanians are behind in the state rankings on literacy and numeracy and the focus is now on change which will drive results back to an optimum level. In the debates about the compulsory starting age modification, Finland has been cited frequently. Here's why:

Starting children in school before they're naturally developmentally ready has no scientifically proven long-term advantage worldwide. Instead, Finnish children start school at seven years old and school attendance is only compulsory for nine years. Furthermore, Finland has kept school hours short, lessons fun, homework minimal, and standardized testing non-existent for its students. For a country with a relatively small population (5.4 million people), the emphasis is on creativity and innovation, and this is something that is cultivated from an early age. Creative subjects have been added to rather than slashed from the curriculum, recesses and free play are customary, and children are placed in a warm environment that is centred on collaboration and encouragement. However, it is not just this relaxed school structure from which Finnish schoolchildren benefit, but also from the teachers of Finland.

Finnish teachers are among the best and the brightest in the country and are required to complete their Master's degree before they are allowed to teach. It is a respected profession and is highly sought after, with candidates jumping through hurdles encompassing multiple interviews and personality screenings before scoring the job. This strict and highly competitive process engenders trust between teacher and parent; as a result, Finnish teachers have substantial freedom to innovate in the classroom without disruption from bureaucratic processes or excessive regulation. Compare this to Australia, where entry into the teaching profession is often a last resort for Australian school leavers, especially for those with lower entry scores.

Tasmania is moving to push its standards of education to match the rest of Australia, as the results are worrying: Tasmanians generally have fewer years of education under their belt than their peers in other states. Providing access to top educators and high quality educational opportunities to Australian children is a top priority, after all, our children are the future of this world. But could Finland's education success emphasising free play and physical activity for children under seven years of age, be a model from which Tasmania could learn? Only time can tell.

Karen Khoo
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Updated 9/27/2016


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