Should children start school as early or as late as possible? This is the big question faced by many parents each year in many countries. While some parents fear that if their children begin school too early they may fall behind, other parents prefer to send them to school as soon as they are eligible. Research reveals that kids from more advantaged areas are more likely to be held back than their less advantaged peers, while boys are more often held back than girls.

The comparison between the numeracy and literacy results of children who were held back and those who started school early indicates that this factor has little influence on both their math and reading skills in middle primary and lower secondary grades. In Australia, where the school entry cut-off varies by state, children born between January and the cut-off date are allowed to enter school at four years old or can be held back for an extra year and enter school at age five. The possibility to hold students back or to enroll them when first eligible means that the age range between the youngest and oldest children can be as high as 19 months in some classrooms.

What is confusing is that some international studies found that kids who are held back tend to achieve better in academic tests in the early years of primary school, but that other studies found that there is no long-term academic benefit of being held back. Interestingly, some Australian research has shown that younger students were more engaged and motivated in high school than their older peers.

Moreover, when individual differences in student's ability to focus attention were taken into account, there was little difference in performance later at school between the pupils who were held back and those who started on time in any grade level, even when the shift in age exceeded 12 months. It seems that individual differences in ability to focus matter more than being held back a year.

In conclusion, this research suggests that even if some students may have some initial advantage if they are held back, all children - regardless of their age when they begin school - make significant progress in their numeracy and literacy abilities from grades 3 to 9. Any initial advantages for delayed students are negligible by the middle of secondary school.

Picture: Portrait of Mrs Catherine Smith Gill and Two of her Children, by James Tissot (Google Art Project, Wikimedia Commons, w/Effects)