• Many parents hold a child back now simply to give them 'the gift of time'. (AAP)Source: AAP
What age should a child start kindergarten and what impact will it have on their accomplishments, both early and late in life? It's a common dilemma among families nowadays. But don't fall into the parenting trap that 'redshirting' equals success.
Marnie McLean

21 Jan 2016 - 12:26 PM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2016 - 11:29 AM

When my son was born in June, 2013, plans were wistfully made for what I dreamed would be a distinguished career, with the first big decision being when to enrol him into kindergarten. As a child born mid-year, I had to make the decision to either enrol him at a young four-and-a-half or postpone his enrolment by one year, which would make him a more rounded five-and-a-half. 

Postponing the enrolment of an age-eligible child into kindergarten, known as redshirting, is a hot topic of debate among parents. 

A 2011 Australian study first highlighted that the number of kids who have purposely been delayed from starting kindergarten or academically 'redshirted', had risen in Australia. It found that the first national estimates taken in 2005, recorded 14.5 per cent of school entrants as being delayed from starting school.

Jump to the latest data gathered mid-2014 by the NSW Department of Education and it's revealed that 13,659 pupils were already aged over six years old in the state's government school kindergartens.

"Older children won't necessarily be more 'ready' than younger peers."

While few statistics on redshirting have been collected nationally here since, it's a practice that has become a new normal. In fact, the idea that kindergarten is the new first class is now hotly debated by numerous experts, as well as parents in online forums.

But why redshirt your kid?

2006 US study found redshirted primary schoolers scored 4 to 12 per cent higher on standardised maths and science tests.

"This advantage may or may not continue throughout their schooling," says Jo Darbyshire, a kindergarten teacher at Toowoomba's Fairholme College. "But it would depend on home learning experiences, the individual's attitude to learning and more," cautions the educator of 30 years.

However, experts are on the same page when it comes to 'legitimate' redshirting. If a parent sees significant signs that their child is less intellectually or socially developed than their peers, holding them back is a no-brainer.

But the decision becomes less obvious when redshirting is based on age alone. Many parents hold a child back now simply to give them 'the gift of time'. The logic follows that the oldest kids in class are springboarded to success in not just the early years, but long-term too. Case closed. Or is it?

"Cognitive development is only linked to age, not determined by age," Dr Claire Campbell, Early Years Specialist Lecturer at James Cook University, points out though. "Older children won't necessarily be more 'ready' than younger peers," explains Dr Campbell.

Parents of boys are likewise driving the practice in both the US and Australia, believing them to be less mature.

Varied research into American families indicates that white parents − especially those with university degrees − are also doing it, results which mirror the Australian research.

"Redshirting seems to be more common amongst higher income families in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. They can often afford an extra year of child care or have a stay-at-home parent," confirms Professor Alison Elliott of CQ University and University of Sydney.

The cut-off date for enrolment in Australia − which dictates when a child must turn five by and varies across states and territories − is also a leading cause of the trend.

Parents of boys are likewise driving the practice in both the US and Australia, believing them to be less mature (in line with much research). For instance in 2014, NSW government schools saw 7,999 boys redshirted, compared to only 5,660 girls.

"Boys are not quite as ready to sit still, manage sustained fine motor tasks like writing and may not have the language skills of girls of a similar age," says Jo Darbyshire, a kindergarten teacher at Toowoomba's Fairholme College.

But while the same US study showed that redshirters were nearly 12 per cent more likely to enrol in university, further supporting evidence is relatively thin, with conclusions usually drawn from other older overseas studies.

"Any benefits seem to 'wash out' by primary school," Prof Elliott shares. "Social immaturity − which many parents say of five year old boys − does not necessarily link to cognitive immaturity. Younger children can benefit from the challenges of being with older children and strive to keep up."

"Younger children can benefit from the challenges of being with older children and strive to keep up."

Here's another intriguing red flag: non-white cultures that have statistically excelled academically, do not traditionally redshirt.

Australian-Indian mother, Priya Subramani, sent her daughter Hannah to school before age five. "The Indian culture sees enormous benefits in early learning not to mention being immersed in an English language setting."

A 2015 UK study revealed that 15.4 per cent of people of Indian origin (followed by Chinese at 12.8 per cent), are most likely to be in elite professional roles in Britain. It makes for another compelling case against hoping on the bandwagon.

"Some of the best performing countries like Finland and Denmark encourage commencing schooling a little later," Dr Campbell highlights, though. "So there's evidence to support commencing at both a younger and older age."

So to redshirt or not to redshirt? That is the question.

Despite the conflicting research, the question remains likely answered in the affirmative for this parent. At five and a half years of age, my son won't be among the oldest in his class − just not the very youngest.

While redshirting might be of benefit, it clearly isn't a sure-fire recipe for success. Only parents − taking on board advice from their child's early child care professionals − can make the call.

"A one-size-fits-all approach isn't sensible," concludes Prof Elliott. "It is the school’s role to be ready for children from diverse social, cultural and academic backgrounds." 

"If you do make the decision to delay school entry make sure your child attends a high-quality early education and care program to maximise their learning and development during that year," adds Darbyshire.

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