Kindergarten: The First Step in Formal Education – The Need to Get Children Started Well

Art by Alyssa Arizabal  

Kindergarten is the first step in formal education in what should be a 12-year basic education journey.  There is a Chinese proverb ascribed to Laozhi (Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing) that says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Kindergarten is that first step in formal education in most education systems in the world today and it should be a strong, confident one in the right direction.

Research from around the world supports the idea of universal Kindergarten and pre-primary education, the latter being for children aged 3 to 5 years of age, the former for children aged 5 years.

Kindergarten (and early childhood development) has over the past two decades been recognized as critical to developing learning success among children.  Kindergarten is important for developing certain skills such as socialization, communication, collaboration, language.  Getting children into kindergarten at 5 years old prepares them (and parents) for Grade 1 (and elementary education) when they turn 6 years of age, considered the optimum age to start formal schooling.

In the PISA 2018 findings worldwide, starting schooling at the right age can have a positive correlation with reading performance.  Corollary to this, the negative effects of starting schooling late can grow exponentially as a child is delayed by more years.  This can have a compounding effect if this is not caught early.

In the PISA 2018 findings, analysts observed that across OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, children who did not attend or attended less than one year of pre-primary education scored lower in reading at age 15 than students who attended 1-3 years of pre-primary education including kindergarten.  The PISA test scores for 15 year olds were 444 for children with no pre-school experience versus 471 for those with one year of pre-school experience.  This was higher at 491 for children with two years of pre-school experience.  Children with three years of pre-school experience were marginally better at 493.  The big difference was between children with no pre-school experience versus those with 1-2 years experience attesting to a lot of learning in those pre-primary education years (PISA 2018).

In the Thailand PISA analysis, the starting age for primary school and grade repetition are related.  A student who started primary school at age 6 (the right age) had a 3.74% chance of repeating a grade. Entering a year later (at age 7), the probability increased to 4.85% and the negative effect grew larger for every additional year of delay in schooling.

In the Thai PISA results, the negative marginal effect of grade repetition at the primary level was equivalent to more than a year’s worth of formal schooling (-37.9 points in Reading).  (Thailand is used for illustration purposes because it has participated in PISA tests over a number of cycles.  The Philippines participated only in 2018 and has no other data results to analyze.) 

Other research shows that a high-quality pre-school or kindergarten education can boost children’s cognitive development and well-being that can lead to later academic achievement (Duncal et al, 2007)  and improve behavior, attention, effort, and class participation in later years (Berlinski, Galiani and Gertler, 2009). 

The importance of kindergarten in the Philippines was finally recognized with the passage of the Kindergarten Law in 2012 (Republic Act 10157).  Before that, enrolment in Kindergarten was voluntary with all of it offered only in private schools.  What was offered by the government, both national government and local government, were daycare services, but this was principally child-minding rather than for learning (though there was learning by doing, without doubt, at that young age).  It was also offered spottingly with not all LGUs and areas covered.


One of the most important lessons imbibed by the Kindergarten Law was the signaling it has sent to parents to have children enter schooling at the right age.  I bring up the experience DepED  in the early 2000s.

In 2003, after the BEIS (Basic Education Information System) was organized and implemented in the Department of Education, DepED was finally able to get a handle on the mountains of school records and education statistics that were in hard-copy reports, allowing it to analyze the numbers to help it get to the root of many of the problems it faced.  One of the pervasive problems was the high dropout rate in basic education.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, for every 100 children entering Grade 1 (then the first year of formal education), only around 70 would finish Grade 6 (the last year of Elementary education).  The highest dropout rate was between Grades 1 and 2 when around 17% would not make it to Grade 2 (or postpone moving on).  The dropout rates for Grades 2 to 6 were much lower before they rose again in Grade 7.  That later dropout rate was attributed to high schools being further away from many communities making it more difficult for children in more remote communities to attend high school usually located in more urbanized settings.  (More on this in later essays.)

Parsing the data further, the lead statistician at that time, Deo Genito, together with a World Bank consultant, Tony Somerset, looked at different factors to get at the root of the dropout problem.  Using the BEIS system, they grouped each year level by age starting with Grade 1 (age being a factor, but which turned out to be statistically significant).

Grade 1 pupils were grouped into three categories:  The right age kids (6 year olds), those overage by 1 year, and those overage by 2 or more years.  Taking the entire Grade 1 cohort for that year as 100% of the group, they divided the cohort by age into what were called market shares.  The findings were instructive.  About 65% of the children enrolled were of the right age; about 25% were overage by one year; and the balance (less than 10%) were overage by 2 or more years.  Tracking that same cohort in Grade 2 saw the right-age kids share drop below 65% (more right age kids were dropping out by Grade 2) and shares of the overage kids rise (the overage kids were staying in school at Grade 2).  This pattern continued into Grades 3 and 4 before it started to reverse in Grades 5 and 6 onwards.  (This new pattern continued into high school).

To better understand this phenomenon, tracking studies were down of parents of kids dropping out of Grade 1.  When asked why these pupils had dropped out of school before Grade 2, the answers mostly given were:  “Mahina ang katawan ng anak ko.  Hindi nila kaya mag-aral buong araw. (My child isn’t strong enough to be in school all day”.)  Poor health and nutrition was the major factor and armed with this information, DepED began a serious concentrated program in school feeding to encourage parents bring children to school.  The 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program) conditional cash transfer program was a second program to encourage the same. 

But the key insight of Genito and Somerset’s work under the guidance of Assistant Secretary for Research, Lily Roces, was that it was not just about  bringing children to school but to have them start at the right age.  Children dropping out of Grades 1 to 4 due to hunger or undernutrition could be addressed by school feeding.  Children who made it to Grade 3 with this assistance were more likely to finish the complete elementary school cycle.

Children dropping out from Grades 5 to 10 were doing so for a number of reasons including “lack of interest”, bullying (strongest among pre-teen children taunting overage classs mates), barkada (peer pressure) or the family pressure to work (strongest among overage boys).  These were more of social reasons more complex to address.  Starting school at the right age could provide a cushion with added support (i.e. school feeding or conditional cash transfers) to address this.

Looking at the economics of drop-outism, the loss in human capital of kids dropping out between Grades 1 and 3 (the right age but not strong kids) – over a 3 year period – was much less than the dropout rate of overage kids from Grades 4 to 10 (the period when overage kids tended to drop out for the above reasons).  This would support the policy to try to being kids to school at the right age.

Other research done by the World Bank and others suggest that children that come to school one year later than the required age tend to be slower at reading and learning than their right-age peers.  The gap widens for children entering formal schooling two or more years later.

Getting children to school at the right age is therefore critical to getting a good start in education.  By passing the Kindergarten Law, the signal to parents is to enroll children in Kindergarten at age 5.


With the closure of face-to-face education in school year 2020-2021 and the slow reopening of schools for school year 2021-2022 by the government, enrolment in basic education has dropped with many parents choosing not to enroll their children in Kindergarten and in the lower primary grades

At the Kindergarten level, enrolment in the 2020-21 school year versus the previous year dropped by 239,547 learners (-12%).  A total of 1.8 million enrolled compared to 2.04 million enrolled in the previous school year.  Compared to the 5-year old cohort, the previous year’s enrolment represented near universal participation in Kindergarten.  Private school kindergarten enrolment was down by 165,371 (-66%) to 85,440 learners.  Public kindergarten enrolment fell by 73,584 (-4%) to 1,717,49 learners. (DepED 2020)

With the prospect of a second year of distance learning, it is uncertain how many children will be delayed in enrolling in formal schooling.  This form of disruption will have an impact on international large-scale assessment tests many years later when children are tested in Grades 4,7, and 9.

The importance of Kindergarten as the first step in formal education cannot be stressed enough.

Juan Miguel Luz Fellow, FEU Public Policy Center.  Member, Board of Advisors, Philippine Business for Education (PBEd).  Former Undersecretary, Department of Education.