Education Minister John O'Dowd has ruled out changing Northern Ireland's school starting age from four years to five – but has agreed to look at giving parents of younger children the option to defer P1.
Pressure group Parents Out Loud, which met the minister at Stormont yesterday, is calling for children who fall in to a number of categories to be permitted a one-year deferral to their school start age. The categories include:
• Children born in May, June, or on July 1.
• Children born prematurely.
• Young-for-year children born as part of a multiple birth.
• Children with non-statemented additional needs.
lAdopted and cared-for children.
The delegation included Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Northern Ireland; Dr Liz Fawcett; Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years; Dr Martin McPhillips, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Queen's University; Siobhan McQuaid, vice principal at Holy Family Primary School in north Belfast, and mother Roisin Gilheany.
Dr Fawcett said: "The current inflexible system means that, every year, some children are starting school at an inappropriately early age which may well handicap them throughout their school career.
"We are delighted that the minister listened very sympathetically and told us he recognised that we are highlighting an issue which needs to be addressed. He has promised to consider our case."
The minister, who called the meeting useful, said: "I listened to those who would like a greater degree of flexibility to the school starting age. I agreed to consider the points raised and to look at ways to incorporate flexibility into the current system."
In Scotland, where a flexible approach is taken towards the school starting age, between 7% and 12.5% of children have their places deferred beyond the normal enrolment age. If Mr O'Dowd gave the green light to parents here it could mean around 3,000 children delaying entry into P1.
Experts are concerned about the impact of Northern Ireland's school start age – Europe's youngest – particularly on children with May and June birthdays. They believe young children would benefit from an additional State-funded year in a pre-school.
The move could cost an estimated £5.4m per annum.
Parents Out Loud believes:
• Children gain no academic advantage from school at aged four.
• Research indicates children may have better outcomes if they are not placed in formal academic environments before aged six.
• Education and Library Board data shows that over the six years between 2006 and 2011, children with May or June birthdays, were 14% more likely to be referred to the Educational Psychology Service than the average rate for children with any birth month.
• A Northern Ireland study found that children with May and June birthdays were at a double disadvantage in terms of the development of core literacy skills as they suffered from a negative impact of being both summer born and young for their year.
Northern Ireland is the only country which legally obliges children aged four years to attend primary school. In most of Europe it's aged six. If a child's fourth birthday is between September 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014, they must start school in September 2014. If a fourth birthday falls on or between July 2, 2014 and August 31, 2014 they start in September 2015.