Education news

School starting age guidance disappoints parents

Education minister John O'Dowd said the guidance was the first step-forward in seeking to clarify an important issue

LONG-AWAITED guidance on school starting age flexibility has left parents frustrated and disappointed.

A new booklet includes information on the legislation that determines the compulsory school age.

It also includes advice for parents on what to do if they have concerns about their child settling into primary school.

Campaigners had hoped it would make it easier for parents to defer their child's school entry where they felt they were not ready to start.

The north has a starting age of four, the youngest in Europe. Research has found the younger a child starts school, the greater the risk of them developing behavioural problems and speech and language difficulties.

Young-for-year children who start P1 just weeks after their fourth birthday are being diagnosed with sensory and physical issues at a higher rate than their older classmates.

The Department of Education revealed plans last year to defer the compulsory starting age.

It was proposed that parents should have the right to request a year's deferral where they believed it would be in their child's best interests.

The changes will not be made during the mandate of the current assembly, however.

Earlier this year, some families received letters giving them permission to keep their children back a year if they felt they were too young to start P1.

Umbrella group ParentsOutLoud said it expected the new guidance to explain the legal options "in layperson's language" and to acknowledge that not all children were ready to start formal schooling at four.

"What we've got is a document which fails to recognise this fact and which tries to reassure parents that, whatever the issues, their child will be okay if they start school at the normal age," said Dr Liz Fawcett, ParentsOutLoud's Northern Ireland representative.

"While the Education Authority's legal position on the school starting age is set out in the document, nowhere does it clearly explain that parents can, under current legislation, place their child in a private pre-school setting for an additional year.

"Moreover, the guidance also states that children who do start school a year later than normal must go into P2 - that's just not correct as the guidance also states elsewhere that children can be placed in a year different to the normal one."

The guidance states that in exceptional cases, "it may be in the child's best interests to be educated outside his/her chronological age group".

Rene Droomer, a parent who supports flexibility, said the guidance implied education in P1 was play-based only.

"I wanted to keep back my own premature birth and young for year son, Benjamin, but could find no easy way of doing it. Since he started school, he's been anxious about going and has started to stutter," she said.

"While it’s a lovely school, he was given academic work from the outset. It's just not true that all primary schools provide fundamentally play-based learning in P1. Benjamin is only managing to cope because the school's put extra support in place, which is obviously very good of them.

"But I firmly believe those additional resources would have been unnecessary if he had remained in the environment to which he's currently best suited which is a truly play-based and pre-school one."

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