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Is my child ready for school?

A little boy in school uniform using a pencil to write on a piece of paper.

School can feel like a big step, not just for your children but for you too! You’ve got to choose a suitable school, buy all their uniform and think about what to include in their backpack.

In our guide, you can find out more about what age kids have to go to school, as well as some of the things they might already know for their first day.

What age do kids start school?

Children usually start school the September after their fourth birthday. For example, if they turn four in October 2025, they would start reception the following September (2026). If they turn four in June 2026, they would also start in September 2026.

School is compulsory over the age of five. This means you can defer their place until they turn five, but they must start full-time education from the school term after their fifth birthday. Deferring can work well for those children that are the youngest in the year (July and August birthdays) if you don’t believe they are ready. You can defer them so they start later that same school year (in the January, for example, instead of September) or they can start the following school year, skipping reception and going straight to year one. They can even start part time.

Can my child start school early?

Your child may be able to start primary school early, but this will be at the discretion of the school. They could ask why you want them to start early, and they might carry out a basic assessment to see where their skills are at and whether starting early would be beneficial or not. In some cases, they may suggest that they attend a nursery for early education, instead. The government website has more details about free childcare for three and four year olds.

If a nursery isn’t what you’re looking for, you could look out for some educational play sessions or lessons for toddlers and young children in your area to encourage learning.

What should a child know before starting school in the UK?

Before your child starts school, they should be able to perform some tasks on their own and have a basic level of education when it comes to numbers and letters.

Many schools actually prefer the children to do tasks that make them more independent, such as going to the toilet independently, recognising their name and washing their hands, than educational skills like counting. It leaves them free to teach reading, writing and numbers with children that already understand how to do basic tasks.

Below, you can find some of the things your child might know before starting school. These are things that your child could be doing, but the list shouldn’t be used as a test ‒ each child is different and develops in their own time.

  • Follow simple instructions. It’s helpful for the teachers if your child can follow instructions like “Sit on the floor” or “Put the books back in the box”.
  • Dress themselves. Can they put their socks on or take off their coat? Can they put on their school shoes? These things are useful for when the children go outside or need to change their clothes. However, if their shoes are laces, they may not have learned how to tie them yet.
  • Express themselves. If they can tell someone they’re thirsty or hungry or would like to play with a certain toy, this can be really helpful for teachers and assistants. You can encourage this and practise at home prior to school starting.
  • Use a knife, fork and spoon to eat. While most packed lunches will contain finger foods, hot school dinners might require cutlery and they could struggle if they aren’t able to feed themselves.
  • Share and take turns. These are skills a child will generally pick up in nursery, or if they have siblings. It’s a good skill to have prior to primary school, where they will have to get used to taking things in turns.
  • Understand simple stories and tell their own. Storytelling is a big part of a child’s development. It demonstrates enhanced imagination, good vocabulary and communication skills. Reading can encourage storytelling, so introducing storytime before bed may develop this skill.
  • Pair objects. Can your child group objects that are the same, or have similarities (the same colour, shape, size, etc.)? You can play games at home to practise, asking your child “Are these the same colour?” or “Are these the same size?”.
  • Identify patterns, shapes and colours. If they aren’t able to do this yet, you can use games, including I Spy, to help them. “I spy with my little eye, something that’s the colour blue”. Alternatively, point things out at home and explain “That window is a square” or “That mirror is a circle”.
  • Count to 20 (approximately). You can use games or songs to practise numbers at home. Identify real-life examples too (phone numbers, recipes, number plates).
  • Know the alphabet. Children might be able to recite the alphabet or at least identify some written letters. They may be able to spell their name.
  • Identify some sight words. Sight words (i.e. words that aren’t phonetically spelt) include ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘me’, ‘we’. They may be able to identify a handful before they start school and around 20 by the end of reception.
  • Engage in a basic conversation. Conversation is about listening as well as speaking, which is an important skill. Practise conversations at home, asking them about their day.

Don’t be worried if your child isn’t doing some or all of these things yet. Some children will be nearly five when they start school, whereas some won’t turn five for a few months, so developmentally, they may be at different stages. However, if you want to help your child learn before they are ready for school, these skills are a great place to start.

If your child appears apprehensive or nervous about starting school, then have a discussion with them about it. Explain what they’ll be doing and what they will learn, making it sound fun and exciting!