Japan should offer free education for children as young as 3 years old and reduce the age at which all children must start school, from 6 to 5, a government panel on education reform advised Thursday.

It recommended that free preschool education be rolled out gradually, with the ultimate aim of granting access to all children aged 3 to 5.

The recommendations were drafted by a team headed by Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata, who handed the report to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office.

“The proposals would transform our country’s educational system, which is 70 years old and has been in place since the war,” Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura quoted the prime minister as saying.

“The education ministry aims to realize free education at preschools by 2020,” Shimomura said.

The ministry will talk to relevant parties about how to fund the expansion, estimated to cost ¥790 billion, he said.

Other proposals by the 15-member panel include creating a new category of school. This would merge the functions of elementary and junior high school, and offer a full nine years of uninterrupted schooling at one institution.

Currently, children usually spend six years at elementary school and three years at junior high school. Municipalities that want to create nine-year schools have to apply for special permission.

The change would give municipalities more flexibility to meet local demands. It would also reduce the stress on students forced to change schools and adjust to new surroundings, classmates and staff.

Shimomura said he aims to submit bills on the matter to the regular Diet session next year, following discussions by the Central Council for Education, the main advisory panel to the minister.

The panel also urged reform of the teaching certificate system so that teachers can provide instruction in multiple categories of schools, such as elementary and junior high schools.

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