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Bill on flexible school starting age to be fast-tracked through Stormont


Education Minister Michelle McIlveen at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Stormont’s Education Committee has agreed to recommend accelerated passage for a bill to make changes to the school starting age in Northern Ireland.

The move means legislation introducing more flexibility into when children start school is likely to be passed into law before the end of the current Assembly mandate.

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said she was asking for MLAs to support accelerated passage through Stormont as a ‘last resort’ to ensure another cohort didn’t miss out on legislation that has been talked about since 2014.

“I was disappointed this wasn’t taken through at the time of John O’Dowd’s tenure as Minister,” said Ms McIlveen.

“I am very conscious of the fact I was only going to be in office for a short time and I didn’t want to waste the window of opportunity to try to pursue this.

“I set officials a challenge to try to get this through a consultation process and ensure we had the appropriate evidence to get us to this stage. I am mindful that accelerated passage was going to be the only route we could take to ensure no further cohorts are left out. Accelerated passage would always be my last resort but given the pressures we were under and the feeling around the chamber of support for change, this was the route we took.”

The Flexible School Starting Age Bill is seeking to provide flexibility to allow parents of children born between April 1 and July 1 to opt to start school in the September following their fifth birthday.

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Most children in Northern Ireland start school in September of the school year after their fourth birthday, amongst the youngest school starting age in Europe.

Th change would also allow younger children to benefit from an extra year in pre-school, beginning school when their parents believe they are ready to do so, after the original bill was amended following consultation, though preference will still be given to children applying for a pre-school place for the first time.

The new legislation would also have a big effect on children born prematurely, allowing them more time to develop the skills necessary for primary school.

“Currently children who turn four, on or before the first of July, start primary school at the beginning of September that year,” the Minister said.

“This means that children born in April, May and June are the youngest in the class, starting school a few months after their fourth birthday.

“Northern Ireland is unusual internationally as it does not offer any degree of flexibility in regard to the age that children start school.”

In 2014, a Department plan to introduce flexibility was halted by then Education Minister John O’Dowd, who said there was not enough time to pass the legislation before Assembly elections. It was resurrected by Minister Peter Weir and his replacement in the Department, Ms McIlveen, is keen to see legislation through quickly.

“Northern Ireland has excellent schools and a well-regarded play-based curriculum in the early years of primary school. The vast majority of children regardless of their age within their class thrive at primary school,” she said.

“However, some parents feel that starting school shortly after their fourth birthday is not right for their very young child. They have concerns around issues such as social skills, emotional readiness, the longer school day and independence in personal care.

“But there does require quite a significance support package and guidance put in place for parents to make sure they are getting the right advice on what’s right for their child."

Overall, nine in every 10 who responded to the Department’s consultation, which ended on January 4, were in favour of giving parents the option to delay their child starting pre-school or school.

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