Social policy, Education | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

6 November 2017

If children don’t have the benefit of a well-functioning pre-primary school system, late school entry could undermine their cognitive development. But there are ways policymakers can address the problem, Qihui Chen writes.

Despite the fact that almost all countries specify an appropriate age for primary school enrollment, late school entry prevails in many developing countries and areas. For example, in rural areas of Gansu, a northwestern province of China, more than 30 per cent of school-aged children did not start primary school until the age of 8 in the early 2000s.

Although existing studies have not reached a consensus on the impacts of late school entry, a strand of studies found that it leads to early school departure among school-aged children in countries and areas such as Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia, and rural northwestern China.

Given the key role of education in determining one’s socio-economic well-being, the late-entry/early-departure link suggests that children who start school late may be less socio-economically successful in adulthood. Thus, a major challenge for education experts and policymakers in these areas is to understand why late school entry leads to early school departure.

A number of explanations have been put forward. First, barriers to on-time school entry, such as long distances to travel to school, financial constraints and slow child development, may themselves cause early school departure.

Second, parents who enrol their children in school late may not be highly motivated for their children’s education in general, lacking a strong incentive to keep their children in school long enough.

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Third, compared to their younger classmates, children who start school late may have more responsibilities for helping their parents with housework and farm work, and may thus be distracted from their schoolwork.

Finally, other things being equal, children who start school older will reach the legal minimum age for wage employment earlier, and the option of wage employment will greatly increase their opportunity costs of schooling.

A paper I recently published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies (APPS) examines another potential explanation, which may amplify the impacts of the aforementioned causes: late school entry may undermine children’s cognitive development in areas where pre-primary education systems are underdeveloped.

Without a well-functioning pre-primary school system (including daycare, preschool and kindergarten), children entering primary school late are likely to have spent a number of years in a mentally unstimulating pre-primary environment. This is especially likely when their parents are incapable of providing them with proper and adequate mental stimulation at home, for example, due to their low levels of education or beliefs in and practices of unscientific child-rearing methods. In contrast to the modern scientific view that adult-child interaction is crucial in early years of life, children under the age of 6 were traditionally considered to be in a state of “not understanding” in rural China. A survey conducted by the National Population and Family Planning Commission in Hunan province in 2010 showed that 45 per cent of rural parents in that province never play with their 37- to 48-month-old children and that 61 per cent of rural parents read to their children less than twice a week.

The years spent in these mentally unstimulating pre-primary environments may, in turn, impose a limit on these children’s potential for cognitive development, rendering schooling more difficult and less attractive to them, eventually pushing some of them out of school early.

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Analysing data drawn from the Gansu Survey of Children and Families (GSCF) on nearly 1800 children randomly chosen from rural Gansu, the APPS study found a significantly negative and persistent late school entry effect on children’s cognitive skills, measured by scores on two cognitive ability tests administered in 2000 and 2004.

More specifically, a one-year delay in school entry lowers children’s scores on both tests by 0.11-0.16 standard deviations (of the distribution of test scores). Importantly, the availability of pre-primary schooling in the village was found to offset some (but not all) of these negative effects.

Two policy implications can be derived from these findings. First, to the extent that delaying children’s school entry is the response of low income parents to tight resource constraints, governments in these areas should design and implement policies to help address such constraints.

In addition, governments and/or non-government organisations active in these areas may provide training in scientific child-rearing methods to parents, enabling them to provide proper mental stimulation to their children at home.

Second, a well-functioning pre-primary school system should be developed in rural northwestern China, and in other similar areas. If a better-developed pre-primary school system were available, late school entry may even be beneficial for children’s cognitive development, as found in many developed societies.

It is thus comforting to see that the Guidelines for Poverty Alleviation and Rural Development (2011–2020) recently announced by the State Council of China is aiming to achieve basic universalisation of pre-primary education in China by 2020.

This article is based off Qihui Chen’s paper published in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies (APPS) journal – “Impacts of Late School Entry on Children’s Cognitive Development in Rural Northwestern China—Does Preprimary Education Matter?” You can read the full paper here.

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