Published: 03 August 2016

Hobart Mercury August 2, 2016 

IT is often said that one’s health is everything.

Those with good health and wellbeing often take it for granted until they experience its loss. Education is a key to health and wellbeing.

If, as a society, we do not get education right, we will not see improvements in the overall health and wellbeing.


Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff is proposing to reduce the kindergarten entry age to three and a half years of age and compulsory formal education to four and a half years of age.

While kindergarten is not compulsory and many children benefit from a part-time transition to formal learning, kindergartens are not equipped to care for three and a half year olds. Many children of this age still require assistance with toileting and language. Evidence shows four and a half years is too young for children to attend compulsory formal learning.

Mr Rockliff is right to be concerned that Tasmanian student’s educational outcomes and attainment are among the lowest in Australia and well below many international jurisdictions. In the globally competitive world we all now live, this must be addressed. However, his proposal flies in the face significant credible research.

There is no clear evidence that, overall, children will benefit. In fact, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the very students the Minister is seeking to assist, may well be worse off. These children are most at risk of falling through the gaps and not having their needs met.

This is not to say these children should be ignored. Simply that Mr Rockcliff’s proposal is an inadequate solution.

The engagement of young Tasmanians in education and early learning, particularly those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is vitally important if we are to improve year 10 to 12 retention and attainment rates.

Many of these children come from families who have had a negative experience in their own education and often see little value for their own children. Any plan to address this must encompass the whole family not simply focus on the child.

In recent weeks I travelled to Scandinavia and the United Kingdom to meet with leading experts in this area to seek their advice and enhance my understanding.

The Tasmanian education system needs to learn the lessons from these highly successful education systems and adapt them to Tasmanian needs and circumstance.

In determining the best model, we must learn from, and apply, the lessons contained within the growing body of credible international research. This evidence includes international comparisons and psychological research of young children’s development as learners and it all points to the advantages of a later start to formal instruction/education, particularly in relation to literacy.

Dr David Whitebread, principal research associate and director at the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge, is recognised globally for his contribution to research in this area. He has said there is no research evidence to support the “earlier is better” view. By contrast, a considerable body of evidence indicates the crucial importance of play in young children’s development, the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling, and the damaging consequences of starting the formal learning of literacy and numeracy as young as four years of age.

The evidence regarding the role of play in children’s learning has been gained from a range of areas including anthropological, neuroscientific, psychological and educational studies and is readily accessible. It demonstrates the importance of play-based learning and delay of formal instructive learning. It is vital that children learn the lifelong skills of self-regulation, language, turn-taking, collaboration and co-operation in a truly play based environment. These are skills needed throughout life.

Tasmanian education outcomes are not acceptable and change is needed. Any change must be guided by credible research and focused on a long-term strategy. If the wrong decision is made now, it may take years for the harm created to become apparent.

Children impacted may experience lifelong adverse impacts as a result. We owe it to future generations to ensure no child is left behind and a whole of family approach to education is taken.

There is strong evidence that directly addresses the consequences of the introduction of early (before age five or six) formal schooling. Decision-makers must read and understand this evidence. It is clear the positive impact of extended playful experiences will benefit all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A call has recently been made by the Australian Primary Principals Association to introduce a standard school starting age of five and a half years, in light of the development of the national curriculum and the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of later, rather than earlier attendance at school.

We need to be adaptable. But it must be the right change. Early childhood centres are well equipped and geographically placed to provide high quality early years play-based learning.

Let us focus our attention on how we support these centres. Many of these important community assets will be a serious risk of closure in regional areas of Tasmania if the plan to reduce the starting age of kindergarten and formal schooling is reduced as proposed.

Many of these centres are located in areas of increased disadvantage. Should they become unsustainable as a result of the proposed change, this will result in poorer outcomes for all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We must work to ensure early childhood centres are well equipped, with quality early childhood educators, financially and geographically accessible to all young children and family focused.

Many parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to engage in their child’s early learning experience and thus benefit the whole family and future generations if we get this right.

We must heed the credible and reliable research from around the world as we seek to benefit all Tasmanian students. A long-term strategy and plan must be embraced by all parties to overcome the noise of dog whistles and short sound bites and the frustrating short-term nature of electoral cycles as governments strive to make their mark.

Legislative Councillor Ruth Forrest is the Independent member for Murchison.

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