Starting school at a younger age could benefit children in South Africa

By Nuffield Foundation

Children in South Africa could benefit from starting school a year earlier, according to new research.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the study by Durham University in the UK and the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that those children who started school in Grade R, equivalent to Reception in the UK, were better prepared for school than those who started in the usual Grade 1.

Overall, however, children were ready for school in Grade 1 and made good academic progress during their first year despite some of the complex environmental and social factors acting as barriers to successful schooling.
For example, some children live in homes without running water and toilets, some are orphaned and some have recently arrived in the area.

The study, which was conducted within 112 primary schools in the Western Cape of South Africa, also showed the teachers gave the children unusually high ratings of levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. The researchers are unsure about the reasons for this but their ratings are related to lower starting points and to slower progress.

Lead author of the report, Professor Peter Tymms from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, said: “Generally, the school system in the Western Cape is working well in the early years. However, some children start school a year early in Grade R and they seem to do better in reading and mathematics further down the line than their peers who start the year after so our advice would be to enable more children to start earlier.”

The progress made by the pupils was more related to the quality of the school they attended than the level of poverty they lived in, or their native language, the study found.

The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and is part of the iPIPs (international performance indicators in primary school) project, led by Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) and implemented in South Africa by the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Evaluation and Assessment. iPIPs is an international research project providing policy-relevant information about the developmental levels of children starting school, and the progress they make in literacy and numeracy (amongst other areas) during their first year as well as important information for teachers about their young pupils.

In the current study, a number of comparable assessments of children’s early development were created in three different languages – Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa. These assessments provide a baseline of where children are when they start primary school, both in terms of academic ability and personal and social development.

Research has shown the vital importance of the first year of school, so any improvements that can be made to school systems at this point will benefit a child throughout their whole life.

We developed the iPIPS assessment to provide a robust and reliable evaluation of children’s abilities and progress in their first year of school, regardless of their background or language. To know how effective an education system really is, we need to know where children are when they enter school and what progress the schools are responsible for. This can give Governments a fuller picture of the impact of their educational policies and whether they are leading to the desired positive changes to children’s education.” Professor Tymms, Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University

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