Northern Ireland news

School starting age bill could be fasttracked

Northern Ireland's starting age for pupils is currently the lowest in Europe

FLEXIBILITY over the school starting age in Northern Ireland took a further step toward becoming a reality yesterday after Stormont’s education committee agreed to recommend accelerated passage for a bill to allow the changes.

It came after Education minister Michelle McIlveen appeared before the committee to outline the draft bill on flexible school starting age and explain the need for accelerated passage.

She said she wanted to ensure another cohort did not miss out on legislation that has been considered since 2014.

"I am very conscious of the fact I was only going to be in office for a short time and I didn’t want to waste the window of opportunity to try to pursue this," said Ms McIlveen.

The Flexible School Starting Age Bill seeks to provide flexibility to allow parents of children born between April 1 and July 1 to opt to start school in the September following their fifth birthday.

Northern Ireland's starting age for pupils is currently the lowest in Europe with most children beginning in the September of the school year after their fourth birthday.

The Department of Education has been consulting on proposals to introduce a new policy and changes to the law to allow flexibility for the youngest children in the year group.

Most children will continue to start primary school at the usual time, however, flexibility would allow the youngest children to defer starting pre-school and then primary school for one year.

These children would then start pre-school in the September following their fourth birthday and in primary school in September following their fifth birthday.

Flexibility would be available on parental request and not involve an educational assessment.

The current law would be amended so that deferred children do not reach compulsory school-starting age until 1 September after their fifth birthday.

Just last week it was revealed that a consultation on the school starting age deferral had been supported by the vast majority of respondents.

Ms McIlveen yesterday said she had "set officials a challenge to try to get this through a consultation process and ensure we had the appropriate evidence to get us to this stage".

"I am mindful that accelerated passage was going to be the only route we could take to ensure no further cohorts are left out," she said.

"Accelerated passage would always be my last resort but given the pressures we were under and the feeling around the chamber of support for change, this was the route we took."

The DUP minister added that while "the vast majority of children regardless of their age within their class thrive at primary school...some parents feel that starting school shortly after their fourth birthday is not right for their very young child".

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Northern Ireland news