French president Emmanuel Macron said he was introducing the change to “fight inequality in overseas territories and the poorest areas of mainland France.”

France’s poorest children, and particularly those in its overseas territories, are least likely to attend to nursery. Macron’s new measure is designed to redress this balance.

Is nursery really school?

The change in legal school starting age won’t see parents dropping their toddlers at the gates of mainstream schools. The little ones will be attending nursery schools.

However, nursery schools in France have a reputation for being far more formal than in other countries. For example, in 2013 then-UK childcare minister Liz Truss praised the French nursery system for its teacher-led lessons for two-year olds.

And upon launching the new compulsory age in France, a statement from the Elysée reportedly said that nurseries should no longer be viewed as places for “universal babysitting” but as a “proper school aimed at acquiring language and helping children flourish".

This approach contrasts sharply with nations that regularly top the OECD’s PISA education rankings.

Top performing countries in science, reading and mathematics.
Image: PISA

Estonia and Finland are Europe’s top performers in the PISA rankings, and both do not start formal education until the age of seven.

In Finland children do not have to attend pre-school until the age of six, although most attend daycare centers before that age. At both daycare centers and preschool, the emphasis is on play and socialisation rather than formal learning.

Even in Singapore, which is top of the PISA rankings and whose school classrooms are relatively formal and traditional, compulsory education does not begin until the school year in which children turn seven.

Prior to this children go to kindergarten from age three to six, but the government allows a market-based approach. This allows parents to choose from a wide variety of education styles ranging from play-based learning through to formal curriculum-driven classrooms.

Is three too young?

While there is no direct evidence on whether compulsory nursery education from three has a positive or negative impact on a child’s overall education, there is a large body of evidence that promotes the benefits of starting school at a later age.

Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education cites multiple studies claiming the benefits of starting school later, and of play-based learning in early years.

For example, studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging.

By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later.

In a separate study, US and Danish academics looked at the school starting age in Denmark, where children must start school in the calendar year in which they turn seven. Children born later in the year (December 31st or earlier) were effectively able to start school one year later than children born early in the year (January 1st or later).

The researchers found that starting school one year later significantly improved mental health by age 11.