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Preschool or School?

Economists tell us that there are only two ways a country can become wealthier (or in other words, raise the standard of living for its people). Only two ways. It’s the same for our centre. There are only two ways to increase the wealth (income) of our centre: we can bring in more children (immigration) or we can…


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This Pivot: Could keeping our boys past five years of age help both them and our centre? A provocative suggestion...

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Economists tell us that there are only two ways a country can become wealthier (or in other words, raise the standard of living for its people).

Only two ways.

A country can:

  • get more people into the workforce (through immigration or higher birth rates), or
  • it can improve the productivity of those already in the workforce.

That’s it.

Gross Domestic Product or GDP (which is the way wealth is measured for a country) has only two pathways upwards.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a country can only do one or the other. It can do both. It just means that there are only two options to work with.

It’s the same for our centre.

There are only two ways to increase the wealth (income) of our centre: we can bring in more children (immigration) or we can earn more from the children we have (productivity).

Just two ways…

Acquiring Versus Extending

Let’s delve into some marketing theory!

There is a lot of prevailing advice (but not a lot of specific evidence) claiming that the cost of acquiring a new customer is three times, eight times, ten times, even up to 30 times more than the cost of keeping and extending an existing one. There’s not much agreement on the actual number, but that’s probably explained by the differences between industries rather than poor research.

It’s just plain common sense though, isn’t it? Keeping and extending an existing customer is going to be easier and cheaper than finding a new one. But it doesn’t stop there.

  • Our current customer will be more willing to try something new. The numbers in this graphic suggest it's 50% more likely, and that they will spend 31% more on average too.
  • Our current customer will listen to what we are offering. We have their ear already. The same source above rates the probability of selling to an existing customer at 60–70% while the probability of selling to a new prospect is just 5-20%. This is why fast food restaurants ask us if we want something else with our order (“A drink?” “Fries?” “Would you like to up-size that?”). It’s why gas station attendants point to the basket on the counter next to the payment terminal and ask us if we would like today’s special. It might irritate some customers, but that added cost for making the sale is tiny, and much less than the cost of them finding another customer. It’s called cross selling and up selling. (Bear with us here, we won’t be suggesting you do anything tacky!)

There’s another reason to work with your current customers too.

  • Our current customer is more likely to advocate for us. Existing customers can and will spread the word, thereby supporting (or hurting!) our marketing efforts. They’ll tell others on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) and online review sites about their experiences. Our current customer experience plays a more significant role in attracting prospective customers than ever before.

Putting our efforts into current customers makes sense; yet most organisations focus their efforts on attracting new customers.

Does this mean we shouldn’t attract new customers? Of course not. It means we should not put all of our efforts into recruiting new families for our centre.

We should think about how to extend the clients we already have.

How Could We ‘Extend’ Our Families?

For many businesses, the concept of ‘extending’ their customers means retaining them for as long as they can (which is why most of the literature on this subject refers to ‘acquisition’ and ‘retention’). A coffee shop wants their patrons to return often. Even with the big-ticket items, like luxury cars, the dealer wants their customers to return in the future.

But an early childhood centre is not like that. Our children have a finite time with us, and then they leave to never return.

So, to ‘extend’ our families (given we have limited prospects of persuading our family to have more children!) we must think in terms of providing additional services to the family, because we can’t extend the length of time a child stays…

Or can we?

Could we (ethically) encourage a child to spend more time at our centre?

  • Could we encourage children to start earlier? Not very likely. A child’s start date is set by factors over which we have limited influence; the parents’ comfort level over parting with their child, financial considerations, employment demands, and child readiness (one week is just too young!).
  • Could we encourage children to stay longer each day? Again, not an area we could expect to influence. Financial and day-to-day family considerations will override us there.
  • Could we encourage children to stay longer? Maybe.

School Begins At…

The age at which a child should transition from play-based pre-school learning to formal schooling is the subject of much debate. Around the world there is considerable variation.

The very successful Finnish system starts children at seven years old (and school attendance is only compulsory for children aged nine years old). At the other end is Northern Ireland at four years old. The bulk of Europe has six years of age: Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Spain.

England, Scotland, Wales and the Netherlands start at five years old.

In most Australian states, compulsory education starts at six years  old (five years old in Tasmania). New Zealand also starts children at age six, and the USA also varies between five and six years of age.

By custom, children in New Zealand begin school at five years of age, ready or not.

But they don’t have to start until they are six years old.

But What About Child Readiness?

It is only by social custom that children in New Zealand start school at age five.

All other stages in a child’s education progression are determined by the child’s readiness; their ability and progress. Yet we almost universally choose a child’s school start date by the tick of the clock. And we do so in the face of substantial evidence that this is both wrong and often too early. (This link cites a US and Danish study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education “that shows that holding children back until they are seven reduces inattention and hypo-behaviour - especially in boys”.)

Ah, boys…

There is little debate that boys are developmentally behind girls at age five (according to some sources, by anything up to 18 months). Any early childhood teacher can tell us that a typical boy is less mature socially, less verbal, and more active than most girls that age (the same teachers that will howl in protest at any suggestion that boys would be better off in early childhood for longer!).

But, if boys represent 50% of our children, and if boys are developmentally behind girls at five years of age, and if being behind at the beginning of school casts a legacy a child struggles to escape from, and if we are funded for children until they turn six – then doesn’t that constitute an ethical opportunity (and a professional responsibility) for us to work to extend the time boys spend at our centre?

What if all the boys in our centre started school at age six? (It could be a great USP for our centre too.)

And the Obstacles Are?

Of course, it is not going to be simple or easy to change the status quo. It will be hard.

But it’s a unique situation, and one that is clearly win-win for both the children and our centre. So, it may be worth pursuing.

The children themselves may not care, and our staff can be talked around, but persuading parents to keep their child in our preschool setting past the age of five will present challenges. However, there is plenty of information online to help us make the case that education is not a race, that children who begin later happily catch up (see here) and that boys, in particular, benefit by starting school slightly older than girls.

It won’t be easy, especially if parents see the suggestion as a slight on their child’s abilities. We just need to take the time to educate them about the benefits, and to remember that it is in the best interests of the child.

Food for Thought…

  • There are only two ways to increase the wealth (income) of our centre: we can bring in more children (acquiring) or we can earn more from the children we have (extending).
  • It's a widely held belief that it's easier and cheaper to extend current customers than to acquire new ones.
  • Most organisations focus their marketing efforts on acquiring new customers.
  • While we don't have much scope to start children earlier or extend their hours each day, we could promote keeping children (especially boys) in our centre past the age of five.
  • Sending children to school when they are ready, not when they reach a certain age, can be a win-win situation for the child and the centre.

2 replies on “Preschool or School?”

Like you Wendy, I feel our boys especially would benefit from staying at an ECE facility until they were 6 or at least near 6. I think sharing with our parents/whanau the benefits of their sons starting school later is most important. Maybe we could all start with whanau evenings solely discussing this topic. There is a huge focus on turning five and going to school – it’s made to feel like the most important event in a child’s young life but it could easily be deferred for a year.

Thanks for your comments Wendy.

In light of this governments new push to allow our 4 year olds to begin school your article only goes so far. There is some consensus in the ECE world that we should all get together and encourage ALL our parents/whanau to begin their children at age 6 – the legal age. We are well aware that our children are not ready for the “system” that is the NZ school at 5 years of age. They go from ECE which is an Inquiry based learning environment to a large group situation with one only one teacher who due to the number of children he/she has – “facilitates” adult initiated so-called “learning”. We believe that our children, especially our boys, are far better served by staying in an environment where their voices are heard and responded too.

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