Deferred school entry

Nuala Gormley is expecting her fourth child in February. "When I said what date the baby was due, one friend immediately asked if I was planning to defer. At the moment, I'm just thinking about getting through the next year or so. But when it comes to it, I can't imagine we would send a child to school at the age of four and a half."

“Are you planning to defer?” is one of the first questions a pregnant woman north of the border will be asked if her due date falls between November and February. Thanks to a once little-known provision of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, the parents of children who are not five when the school year begins have the legal right to hold them back until the next year.

Technically, all children born between the beginning of March one year and the end of February the next, start school together in mid-August, with an average age of four and a half. In Scotland, therefore, it is the winter-born children who are the youngest in the class, not the
summer-born as in the rest of the UK. But they suffer the same tendency to underachieve.

A recent UK-wide study published in the British Medical Journal found that regardless of season of birth, the youngest in the year have a slightly increased chance of mental health problems.

There is no reception year to ease the transition to school in Scotland; literacy and numeracy programmes kick in almost immediately.

“I was very jealous of my friends in England where the reception year really is a gentle introduction to school and children can go part-time and play until they feel ready to do longer hours and more work,” says community education worker Fiona Henderson.

“I did ask about deferring but I was made to feel I was quite odd to ‘hold Ishbel back’. I suppose I conformed to peer pressure as her wee pals were starting school and I didn’t want her to feel she wasn’t as clever. Ishbel found the first term-and-a-half pure hell. Now [in primary 2] there are seven-year-olds and she is only five, which is a huge gap.”

For children who develop a little more slowly, an extra year of pre-school is uncontroversial. But lawmakers may not have expected that the provision to defer would also be used by parents who object on principle to the early age at which children start formal learning. Some parents seize the opportunity to allow their children another year in which to develop their
imagination and creativity before the jump-when-you’re-told atmosphere of school.

We deferred our daughter Mary, who was born in February 1996 and should have started school in August 2000. We held her out until 2001 and she is now among the oldest in her class. Relatives were concerned that she might get bored and learn to coast if she started school late, but many of the professionals we talked to confirmed that younger children could find themselves at a disadvantage.

I was also concerned about Mary moving to secondary school at 11 and finishing her Highers at 16. I had done just this, but starting an English university at 17 felt too young; many of my peers were a terrifyingly sophisticated 20. So we allowed Mary a gap year aged four.

Initially, in Edinburgh, when parents started to hold their children back without developmental reasons they were refused funding for an extra year of pre-school. However, a compromise means that now January and February-born children across Scotland are automatically entitled to an extra year, while it is discretionary for those born before the end of the year.

So the ball is very much in the families’ court and the number of deferrals has soared in recent years. According to the Scottish Executive, 4,424 children were deferred this August, up almost a quarter on the previous year and almost 50% on two years ago to about 8% of the intake.

Cathy McCulloch, co-director of the Children’s Parliament, Scotland, deferred her son Euan, who will be seven in January. He is now in primary 2. “I decided before Euan was born that he wouldn’t start school before five,” she says.

“The nursery said he would cope but I wanted him to do more than cope – I wanted him to thrive. I wanted Euan to have the maturity to be able to grasp all of the opportunities that education can offer.

“When I look back, I remember my own primary 1 classroom as being full of sunshine and laughter, there was a home corner and a storybook corner. Now they have got to sit there and listen, they have homework.

“Some people think sending their children to school early will help them to get on in life but it doesn’t. It slows them down because they are not ready for it.”

Not all parents agree. “Someone’s got to be the youngest,” says Kate George, who sent her daughter Robyn Vick to school aged four. Now, although not seven until February, she is in primary 3. “We are very pleased with how she is coping. She is a bright girl and she might have
been bored otherwise. We didn’t really have strong views about it, we asked the nursery and they said they thought she would be fine.”

Diane Maclean, a civil servant, decided to send Louis, who is five in February, to school this August. “Friends were aghast that I was sending him to school. But I could only do what I felt was right for him,” she says.

“He was desperate to go, and while I wouldn’t take a decision like that based solely on what he wanted, he didn’t like nursery and I felt he was the sort of boy who was never going to take to nursery but would take to school.

“And he loves it. He has blossomed in a way he would not have otherwise. He runs to school, he runs back and he sings all the time. I refuse to believe that this is the sort of decision that could blight his life.”

The Guardian
November 4th 2003