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Parents' plea to minister could bring flexibility to the age for starting school

By Anna Maguire

Education Minister John O'Dowd has pointed to the possibility of new flexibility on the school starting age in Northern Ireland – which has the lowest in Europe.

Mr O'Dowd said his "mindset was to bring a scheme into play", which would see greater flexibility over when children must start school to address fears some youngsters are too young.

He said the main issue was what scheme would be introduced.

Lobby group ParentsOutLoud is calling on the education minister to introduce a more flexible system, which would see the school starting age raised to five years of age where needed.

Spokeswoman Liz Fawcett said it was her understanding that the minister had looked at a deadline of September for a new scheme.

The minister has warned legislation might be needed, but that he could be announcing a decision in the coming months on the way ahead.

ParentsOutLoud – made up of parents, teachers and representatives from teaching unions and children's charities – estimate that the school starting age for between 1,700 and 3,000 pupils could be delayed if the education minister issues guidance on current legislation.

Children in Northern Ireland currently start primary school at the age of four, the lowest starting age in Europe.

In a presentation to the Assembly's Education Committee yesterday, ParentsOutLoud spokeswoman, Liz Fawcett, pointed to research which reveals the impact on children of starting school with birthdays in May or June.

Data collated by Northern Ireland's education and library boards revealed that between 2006 and 2011, children with May or June birthdays were 14% more likely to be referred to educational psychology services than children born in any other month.

Children with May and June birthdays also have lower levels of literacy at Key Stage 3 (age 14) and GSCE level, according to research.

ParentsOutLoud claim inflexibility towards the school starting age is adversely impacting on children with premature births, adopted children, those in care and children with additional needs waiting for a diagnosis.

Ms Fawcett said that thousands of children are being forced to attend school at the age of four, against the wishes of their parents and carers, under a system which does not take account of the developmental delays suffered by children born prematurely or recovering from years of abuse or neglect.

Mark Langhammer from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) in Northern Ireland said that £47m could be saved in pre-school places if the school starting age is changed.

Mary O'Brien's son, Darragh (4), was born five weeks premature. Ms O'Brien, who reluctantly started Darragh at a school last week, said that children with late birth dates often lack confidence, which manifests as "behavioural problems" in schools.

"I'm trying to stop my son from having self-esteem issues. But one rule does not fit all," she said.

Northern Ireland has the lowest school starting age in Europe, with children starting school at the age of four. In Cyprus, England, Malta, Scotland and Wales, children start school at five. In Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany and Greece children start school at six – as well as in Hungary, Iceland and Republic of Ireland.

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