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Parents in Ireland waiting longer than ever to send children to school, data shows

Older starting age will result in more students being 19 or 20 when completing Leaving Cert

Parents in Ireland are waiting longer than ever to send their children to school, new figures show.

While the age of junior infants has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years, the trend has accelerated in recent times.

The proportion of children aged four or under starting primary school, which includes junior and senior infant classes, has fallen from 46 per cent in 2002 to just under 17 per cent in 2022, a record low, according to Department of Education statistics.

One of the key factors behind the change is the introduction of the free preschool year in 2010 and its expansion to two years in 2016.

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Children may avail of the free preschool scheme from the ages of three up to 5½.

Under school enrolment laws, children in Ireland may be enrolled at primary school from the age of four and must start formal education by the age of six.

Ireland differs from the majority of EU countries, where most children are not admitted to school until they reach six or older.

In Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden, for example, primary school starts at the age of seven.

The later starting age means most children starting school nowadays will be 19 when they finish secondary school and there will be a growing proportion of 20 year-olds finishing second level.

Another factor leading to the older age profile of school-leavers is the growth of transition year – or fourth year – which is optional for students.

Since its introduction, the uptake of transition year has increased significantly to the point where it is now offered in almost all post-primary schools.

The number of students entering transition year has been rising in recent years with student update up from 35 per cent in the 1994/1995 school year to 80 per cent in the current 2023/24 school year.

This older age profile of children in education is one of the factors behind the Government’s decision to extend child benefit up to the age of 19.

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys recently secured Cabinet approval to introduce the changes.

It means that since May 1st, child benefit is being paid to anyone up to the age of 19 who is in full-time education or who has a disability.

It is estimated the measure will benefit about 60,000 children annually.

Ms Humphreys has said that any family currently out of payment – but whose child is over 18 and in full education or has a disability – will have that payment reinstated.

In the coming weeks, the Department of Social Protection will begin communicating directly with families that will benefit from this measure.

As the measure comes into effect in May, there will be no payment for any intervening period up to May 2024.

Parents or guardians do not need to reapply if the child is in full-time education and the department holds a current education certificate.

The payment will be reactivated from this month as long as the certificate is valid and payment will continue for as long as a valid education certificate is in place or the child turns 19, whichever comes first.

If the child turns 18 after May 2024, child benefit will automatically be extended to either the 19th birthday or the expiry date of the current certificate.

In cases where the education certificate expires before the 19th birthday, a new education certificate will be issued to the parent/guardian before it expires. This must be completed and returned to allow payment of child benefit to resume.

The department said it would contact a parent/guardian directly if they needed to provide an updated education certificate.

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