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Changes to Northern Ireland's school starting age rules don’t go far enough: claim

By Harriet Crawford

Proposals to allow more flexibility in Northern Ireland's school starting age don't go far enough to help disadvantaged youngsters, campaigners have said.

Children here are currently the youngest starters in Europe - something the Department of Education has tried to address with proposed reforms which could include giving parents the right to request a delay.

But campaigners - including parents and teachers - have argued that the Government's suggested reforms do not go far enough.

The Department of Education revealed its proposals yesterday as it launched a consultation on deferring school starting age from the age of four.

It has proposed that parents should have the right to request a year's deferral of their child's primary school enrolment where they believe it would be in their child's best interests.

Parents would, however, have to provide evidence that their child is failing to meet developmental milestones and requests would only be granted in "exceptional circumstances".

A campaigning group led by parents' organisation ParentsOutLoud and union the Association of Teachers and Lecturers argue that the plans lack ambition.

The group had wanted children in certain categories to be given an automatic right of deferral where parents felt it was in their child's best interests.

These included children who would be the youngest in their school year, those born prematurely or as part of a multiple birth, adopted and looked after children, and those with non-statemented additional needs.

Dr Liz Fawcett, Northern Ireland representative of ParentsOutLoud said of the proposals: "We are disappointed that the proposals don't include an automatic right of deferral for some categories of children, such as the youngest for year and premature birth children, which was what we'd been asking for.

"However, we are also anxious to see some flexibility introduced as quickly as possible - so we hope the minister will act swiftly to make the necessary changes once parents and others have had a chance to comment on the proposals."

Michelle McIlveen MLA, chair of Stormont's education committee and DUP education spokesperson, welcomed the consultation.

She said: "There is a need for flexibility around the compulsory starting age to accommodate this in the child's best interests. This consultation proposes a means by which this could be done."

The current system has been criticised for forcing children to start school at an inappropriately early age.

Mark Langhammer of the ATL said: "We do believe the proposals could go further, and we think it's vital that a parent's view of their own child's capability is fully considered in any deferral application process.

"Feedback from our members certainly suggests that some children are starting school before they're ready, to the detriment of their educational performance and self-confidence."

This was echoed by Dinah MacManus, principal of Holy Family Primary, Belfast.

"Yes the proposal might be a step forward, but it wouldn't go far enough for me.

"From our experience, we would firmly believe that four is far too young for children to start school," she said.

Background

For more than two decades, children in Northern Ireland have started school at a younger age than those in any other European nation. Currently, only children with a statement of special educational needs are eligible for deferral of their school enrolment. Children who are aged four before July 1 must start school that September, which means that some are only four years and two months old when they begin full-time education. Elsewhere in Europe, including France, Germany and Switzerland, it is common for children to begin school at six years old.

Case study 1

When the Pierse family moved to Belfast from Dublin, they had no idea that the flexible approach towards the school starting age adopted by the Republic did not apply here.

They were shocked to discover their son Emmet (3) would have to start primry school at just four years and two months, as he has a June birthday that falls two weeks before the July 1 'cut-off'.

Emmet started attending a pre-school in south Belfast in September.

He developed a stutter for a while and regressed in his toilet training. Brenda and husband Michael are convinced that similar problems will occur if Emmet enters primary school next year.

"It's just so frustrating," said Brenda. "If we still lived in Dublin this just wouldn't be an issue, because children in the South can start primary school anytime between four and six.

"All we're asking for is a little common sense."

Case study 2

Helen Stevenson lives in the Ballymena area and works for the premature birth charity TinyLife.

Her son Joel (6) was born more than three months early at the end of June, five days earlier than to the enrolment cut-off point. Joel had a fraught year at nursery school. He cried every day and had challenging behaviour.

"I did think: 'If only he'd held on in my womb for another five days, he could have started nursery when he was ready'," Helen said.

Joel started primary school just after he turned four and managed well with good support from his teacher. But he struggled in P2 before settling better in P3. Helen still has to invest extra time and support. She remains adamant that Joel should have started school a year later. "I'm quite sure all the stress could have been avoided," she said.

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