It’s the optimum age, when a child is best suited for formal education
School Entry Age: For the past two years, Kuenzang Dema had been requesting teachers to enroll her son into Baling primary school. The last time she asked, teachers told her he was still too young for admission, because he would not turn six when the academic session starts.
“I wanted to enroll him early, so he could learn something,” the mother of two said. “That way, I could also spare more time for my farm work, because I’ll have only my younger son to babysit.”
Parents of children, who are nearing school age, across the country are in the same situation. Some are resorting to manipulating their children’s birth certificates to get them into school before they are six.
Wangduecholing lower secondary school’s principal in Bumthang came across a few such certificates during the last admission session. Similar practices have been reported in Mongar and Haa.
He said some parents, who had applied for their children’s admission in pre-primary, admitted to manipulating the health records.
“Some said they had to do that, because they had no one to look after their children when they go to work,” principal Phuntsho Tashi said.
That was not the case, when modern education system began in the country. Parents hid their children from teachers and district officials, who visited the villages to recruit school age children.
A former teacher and education official, Jigme Zangpo, was enrolled in one such occasion. His parents requested the officials to drop him, on the pretext that he was deaf and dumb, but to no avail. He later completed school to serve in the education sector for almost three decades.
Jigme Zangpo said the “six years” rule was in place since the ‘70s, when he started his career as a teacher. Then, children were asked to touch their left ear with the right hand over their head.
“It was a rudimentary measure, but it was necessary,” he said, adding that those children, who failed the test, were either too young or too small to attend school, which involved walking for hours to and from school.
Which is why the school age, he said, was fixed, mainly considering the physical abilities of children at that time. “Those younger than six years were unable to make the tiresome trip through dense forests, and across swollen streams in monsoon,” he said. “Some parents had to camp near schools to look after students, sacrificing farm work at home.”
The Education Policy Guidelines and Instructions 2012 have the school starting age of a child as ‘six years before the start of the academic session’. Educationists say this rule, which started with the advent of modern education in the late sixties, was relevant before, and holds even at present.
Education officials said a range of factors, such as infrastructure availability, teacher shortage, and the rate of enrollment, among others, are considered in determining the school age.
Curriculum officials said the pre-primary curriculum is age-appropriate, which means it is not suitable for children below six years, as they would not have acquired the required level of skills.
“The pre-primary curriculum is developed, keeping in mind the cognitive, language acquisition and other abilities associated with a six-year-old only,” curriculum specialist, Wangchuk Rabten, said.
Primary school teachers said they faced problems dealing with under age children.
“Teachers say that most of these students have learning difficulties,” Principal Phuntsho Tashi said. “These children are also often seen stressed and disinterested in lessons.”
This, Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) officials said, is because the child is not yet ready for lessons in a formal environment.
“There are evidences from research that, if a child is enrolled in school early, then the individual would most likely develop learning difficulties at the later stage of schooling,” ECCD chief program officer, Kinley Gyaltshen, said.
He said parents should not rush their children early to school, since a child’s brain is in a developing stage, and needs care and guidance, which would not be possible in a classroom with large number of students.
“Children between three and five years, if possible, should be enrolled in one of the 133 ECCD centres across the country, where they can avail facilities for their holistic development,” he said.
But teachers observed that older students, despite being slow in understanding lessons in the beginning, improved their performance drastically as they progressed.
“There was a nine-year-old girl in pre-primary last year, who struggled in the first six months, but topped in the annual exams,” a teacher from Trashiyangtse lower secondary school, Sonam Deki, said.
Recent research in the United Kingdom also recommends that pupils should not start school before six to prevent ‘premature adultification’ of children.
Starting schooling before the age of six can put even brighter children off learning, according to a research by the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education at Roehampton University in the UK.
The school starting age in Finland, which today has the best education system in the world, is seven years.
But for Kuenzang and her son, being in school with other children from his village is more important than the long-term effects.
“We’d request the teachers to reconsider their decision,” Kuenzang said. “Otherwise, he’d lag behind other boys from our village.”
By Tshering Palden | Thimphu