School comes too soon for some, says campaign group
A south Belfast teacher who thinks there should be more flexibility over the school starting age was part of a delegation who took their case to the Assembly's Education Committee at Stormont yesterday (Wednesday, September 11).
Mary O'Brien, who works at Aquinas Grammar School, lends her experience as both a teacher and the parent of a very young school starter to the umbrella group of campaigners – which is jointly led by the parents' organisation, ParentsOutLoud, and the teachers' union, the ATL.
The group urged the Committee to help ensure the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, brings in a more flexible system as soon as possible.
Mary was left with no choice but to send her son Darragh to school at the start of this month, despite the fact she doesn't believe he's ready.
Darragh was born prematurely and has a late June birthday, meaning he was just four years and two months old when he started school – the cut off age for entry to P1.
"During my years as a secondary school teacher, I've seen evidence of young for year children, especially boys, struggle compared to their peers," she says.
"That's what makes me particularly concerned about how Darragh is going to manage, given that my husband and I were left with no choice but to send him before he's ready.
"Darragh is quite small compared to most of the other children in his class. But, more importantly, he's just not ready developmentally. I think it's very unfair that we've been forced into this position."
Northern Ireland has the lowest statutory school starting age in Europe. The Minister recently agreed to look at ways of introducing deferred school entry for the youngest for year children, and for other children with developmental issues, where a child's parents feel this would be in the child's best interests.
Julie Thomas, principal of Clandeboye Primary School, Bangor, was also part of the delegation. With 20 years' teaching experience, she is sure a flexible approach would benefit pupils.
"Each year I've found there are a number of children who struggle to settle into their first year of school.
"Each child is obviously provided for as an individual. But these pupils are being asked to conform and adapt at a rate which is often developmentally inappropriate and doesn't produce the best educational outcomes for them," she explained.
ParentsOutLoud spokesperson, Dr Liz Fawcett, said the benefits of taking an individual approach to school starting age are being proven elsewhere.
"Both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland appear able to manage a flexible approach to the school starting age without any undue problems.
"Now that the government in England is also taking action on this issue, we hope the Education Minister will act as speedily as possible, and we're certainly heartened by the Committee's interest in the issue," she said.