Starting school
When is the best age for a child to start school? Image Credit: Shutterstock

Education experts have welcomed the Ministry of Education’s (MoE) decision to delay the age at which children start school across the UAE, saying that it is in line with the age cut-off dates used by schools internationally.

“This will have immense benefits for students and families’ social and emotional wellbeing, as well as academic attainment,” says Dubai-based educational psychologist Dr Diksha Laugani. “It also brings the UAE in line with a lot of other countries.”

A child must now be three years old to be enrolled in FS1 (or pre-KG), and four years old to be enrolled in FS2 (KG1) at the start of the academic year, according to an announcement on the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA)’s social media on 23 February 2021, following a resolution made by the Ministry of Education in January 2021.

This shift will ensure consistency across peer groups going forward, says Maryssa O’Connor, Principal/CEO, GEMS Wellington International School. “The recent changes for our youngest students mean that all children enter the school year at the same age point as their peers. This has meant some changes in decisions for parents, particularly those with children who must wait until they are three years old to begin formal schooling. However, over time it will ensure that children develop together with children of the same age.”

The decision also taps into a debate that has long been running about the best age at which children should start school – with many pointing to the highly regarded Scandinavian education system where children do not start formal schooling until 7 years old, while others emphasize the child protection benefits of earlier schooling in some countries and situations. Here we look at the pros and cons of starting school at different ages, and at how things stand in the UAE…


School age info

At what age must my child start school in the UAE?

Compulsory education in the UAE begins from Year 1 (or Grade 1; the academic year that your child turns six) and the academic year runs from September to June, except for Indian, Pakistani and Japanese curriculum schools, which run from April to March.

Although children do not have to start formal school in the UAE until the age of five or six in Year 1 (Grade 1), it’s common for children to enter the UAE school environment at FS1 (pre-KG) or FS2 (KG-1) level, at the age of four, three and – before this latest change - even two years old if their birthday fell at the right time.

How does this compare with the rest of the world?

The UAE are unique in offering 17 different curricula from all over the world, says Fiona Mackenzie, educational consultant and founder of Carfax Education. “Each of these has a different starting age, which makes it complicated when you are running them under one education authority. In Europe alone the age for starting formal schooling ranges from 4 in Northern Ireland, to 5 in England to 6 in France and Germany and 7 in Finland, Denmark and Sweden, which have one of the most highly regarded education systems in the world.”

Why do some families send their children to school earlier than they have to?

Some families are keen to get their children into formal schooling as soon as possible to fast-track their child’s education journey and complete full-time education as soon as possible, says Fiona Mackenzie, educational consultant and founder of Carfax Education. “There is evidence to suggest that older children in the class do better than the younger end of the cohort.”

However the issue of maturity should be kept in mind, she adds: “Whilst this strategy can work in certain circumstances, it can have a knock-on effect where some students finish school and are too young to start higher education.”

It has also been common for children to attend formal school earlier due to a history of extreme competition for school places in the UAE. With limited numbers of schools, parents would sign their children up at the earliest opportunity, as a spot in FS1 (pre-KG) would automatically guarantee them a place in FS2 (KG-1) and Year 1 (Grade 1) at the same school.

However, so many schools have opened in Dubai in recent years that the competition for spots at schools is less fierce – but the legacy of early school attendance still remains. “Many families have two working parents, so going to school is a practical issue for them,” says Joanne Jewell, a former school counsellor and current provider of Mindful Parenting courses at Mindful ME. “I do think there is a lot of pressure on parents to send children to school in FS1 as they are concerned if they don’t then their child won’t get a place in FS2 at their school of choice.”

And for those parents who are on employment contracts that include a school fee allowance, these often are only applicable to formal school fees, and not nursery costs.

Why does age matter when it comes to starting school?

Although the shift in age cut-off is only by a matter of months, it is still a significant one when we are talking about such young children. “Lots of research overwhelmingly supports a later start to formal education,” says Fiona Mackenzie, educational consultant at Carfax Education. “This evidence relates to the contribution of playful experiences to children’s development as learners, and the consequences of starting formal learning at the age of four to five years of age.”

As a result, many curricula focus on play over formal learning when children are very young. “The UK system which starts with the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) programme takes this into account and is very much a ‘play based’ curriculum which is designed to give a firm basis for development and growth,” says Mackenzie. “The controversial part is when children start on formal literacy and numeracy.”

When should children start formal literacy and numeracy?

While parents might be rightfully proud of their three or four year old knowing how to count or learning phonics, studies have consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in the majority of children, says Mackenzie. “Pretence play supports children’s early development of symbolic representational skills, including those of literacy, more powerfully than direct instruction. Physical, constructional and social play supports children in developing their skills of intellectual and emotional ‘self-regulation’, skills which have been shown to be crucial in early learning and development.”

On the flip side, a number of studies have documented the gradual loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems, says Mackenzie.

Seen this way, the question becomes less about what age your child should start school, and more to do with how play-based the curriculum is that they will be studying. "There is an immense amount of research which suggests that ‘play’ is the child’s work,” says Dr Laugani. “Play is crucial for the academic, social, emotional, physical, cognitive, every single aspect of a child’s development. If a child enters school later, it means more time to play, more settled children, more prepared children and families.”

The importance of ‘School readiness’

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider when it comes to your child starting school is ‘School readiness’, says educational psychologist Dr Laugani. “Many parents might think that school readiness is all about academic readiness. But that is just one aspect of it.”

Knowing your ABCs, knowing how to spell your name, recognising colours, shapes and numbers are all important, says Dr Laugani, “but there is a lot more to school readiness than just this.”

School readiness also encompasses self-care, attention span, and emotional maturity, Dr Laugani explains: “Can the child use the toilet by themselves? Or can they indicate that they want to, which requires language and communication?

“Then there is attention and concentration, which needs to be built up, and the number of minutes a child can pay attention to anything increases by age. Even just the physical development to be able to sit in a chair and concentrate.

“It’s also about how they manage their emotions – their capacity to cope with their emotions grows with age."

So at what age should I send my child to school?

So the answer to our original question? The fact is, it is compulsory for your child attend school in the UAE from Year 1 (Grade 1), in the academic year when they turn 6. Before that, it’s really up to your situation and your own child’s personality.

While there may be practical considerations for some families when it comes to the age at which children start school, putting these aside, Dr Laugani would recommend paying attention to your individual child's 'school readiness' above all: “I wouldn’t say there is a negative impact on children starting school early, it just depends on their readiness,” says Dr Laugani.

The decision is as unique as your own child, says Joanne Jewell from Mindful Parenting: "It’s a personal choice and I think can be different from child to child also based on their birthday and whether they are the oldest or youngest in their year at school.

"I would encourage parents to make a conscious choice about what is right for them and their child and not feel pressured to make a decision based on either what other families do or from the school - this can feel hard and it will be the first of many hard decisions you will make for your children all through their years at school."

Is your child ready to start school?
Educational psychologist Dr Diksha Laugani suggests looking for the following signs of ‘School Readiness’

- Can your child use the toilet by themselves? Can they indicate that they want to use the toilet, which requires language and communication?

- How long can your child sit still for?

- How long is your child able to concentrate for?

- How able is your child to manage their emotions?

While there is no right or wrong answer, and children are able to develop these skills while at school, the further along they are with them before starting school improves their chances of the smoothest and most settled transition into formal schooling.