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Primary school entrance age and duration

Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) both aim at universal primary education. All children worldwide should attend and complete primary school by 2015. However, national education systems differ and the meaning of primary education for all children therefore varies from country to country.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) maintains a database with the entrance age and duration of primary education for 204 countries and territories. Table 1 summarizes the distribution of primary school entrance ages from the UIS database. In nearly two thirds of all countries, children are expected to enter primary school when they are 6 years old. In a further third of countries, the entrance age is 5 or 7 years. Two countries have different primary school entrance ages, Ireland with 4 years and Mongolia with 8 years..

Table 1: Primary school entrance age
Age Countries Percent
4 years 1 0.5
5 years 29 14.2
6 years 126 61.8
7 years 47 23.0
8 years 1 0.5
Total 204 100.0
Source: UIS Data Centre, May 2010.

The geographic distribution of the entrance ages is shown in the map in Figure 1. 6 years is the common primary school start age in most of North and South America, Western Europe, Africa, the Arab States, and East Asia, with some exceptions. 7 years is more common in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. 7 years is also the primary school start age in some large countries: Brazil, China and Russia.

Figure 1: Primary school entrance age
World map with national primary school entrance ages
Source: UIS Data Centre, May 2010.

The duration of primary school, shown in Table 2, ranges from 3 to 8 years. In 126 of 204 countries and territories, primary school has a duration of 6 years. In about 25 countries each, the duration is 4, 5 or 7 years. The shortest duration, 3 years, is reported for Armenia, Russia and Turkmenistan. In Ireland, which has the earliest entrance age with 4 years, children have to attend primary school for 8 years.

Table 2: Primary school duration
Age Countries Percent
3 years31.5
4 years 26 12.8
5 years 23 11.3
6 years 126 61.8
7 years 25 12.3
8 years 1 0.5
Total 204 100.0
Source: UIS Data Centre, May 2010.

The map in Figure 2 illustrates the primary school duration by country. 6 years is the most frequent duration in North and South America, East Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States and most of Africa except for Southern Africa, where 7 years is the most common primary school duration. In Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South and West Asia, primary education is typically shorter, with a duration of 4 or 5 years.

Figure 2: Primary school duration
World map with national primary school duration
Source: UIS Data Centre, May 2010.

What are the implications of the different primary school entrance ages and durations for the MDG and EFA goal of universal primary education by 2015? The official duration of primary education is closely linked to the number of children out of school. As an example, assume that a country has a primary school duration of 5 years and that the number of children in and out of school is evenly distributed across the official primary school ages. Shortening the duration of primary school from 5 to 4 years would immediately reduce the number of children out of school by 20 percent. However, the primary school net enrollment rate, the official indicator for the MDG of universal primary education, would not change and the country would therefore not be closer to the 2015 goal.

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Friedrich Huebler, 30 May 2010, Creative Commons License
Permanent URL: http://huebler.blogspot.com/2010/05/age.html

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