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Delay to school starting age reform

Published 22/04/2015

Children in Northern Ireland are among the youngest school beginners in Europe
Children in Northern Ireland are among the youngest school beginners in Europe

A law allowing parents to request a one-year delay in the age children start school has been put back until after the next Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Insufficient time is available to prepare legislation before next year's poll, Stormont's education department confirmed.

It had proposed allowing parents to seek deferral of starting school at age four if they believed it was in their child's best interests.

Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union in Northern Ireland, said: "This move by the minister beggars belief."

Children in Northern Ireland are among the youngest school beginners in Europe.

Before Christmas, minister John O'Dowd announced a consultation on introducing flexibility measures into law.

Under the proposals, parents would have had to provide evidence that their child was failing to meet developmental milestones and requests would only be granted in "exceptional circumstances".

A campaigning group led by parents' organisation ParentsOutLoud and the ATL argued that the plans lacked ambition.

Officials from the department told the Assembly's education committee the Stormont legislation had been delayed until after the election.

The committee is to write to the minister to convey its "frustration and disappointment".

In January, officials told campaigners preparations were well advanced and that the proposed timetable was manageable.

The minister had hoped the necessary changes would be introduced by September 2016.

Most responses to the consultation supported change, campaigners said.

Mr Langhammer added: "This simple and highly popular measure would have benefited thousands of children and improved educational outcomes.

"It also had cross-party support.

"Frankly, if the Assembly and Executive can't deliver on this, one has to question their ability to work in an effective and democratic way which is responsive to the needs of ordinary families and children."

Mr O'Dowd said: "Given the limited Assembly scrutiny time available, it is not likely this legislation could be passed in the current Assembly mandate.

"I have had to prioritise legislation being brought forward focusing on the commitments I have given at Stormont House and to my Assembly colleagues.

"I understand there will be some disappointment, however, the current consultation provides an important starting point and will help inform the interim guidance which I intend to publish in the coming months."

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