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NI school starting age law change moves a step closer

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Most children start school in the September after their fourth birthday. Credit: monkeybusinessimages

Most children start school in the September after their fourth birthday. Credit: monkeybusinessimages

Most children start school in the September after their fourth birthday. Credit: monkeybusinessimages

A change in legislation to allow more flexibility over when children start primary school has moved a step closer after the Department of Education revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to a consultation on the proposal.

Though any change still faces a race against time to be implemented before the end of the current Assembly mandate, hopes remain that parents applying for primary and pre-school places for their children next year could be the first to be permitted to defer their youngsters’ education for a year.

The department said there was optimism new legislation could be in place before the expected May election, which would allow children born between April 1 and July 1 to defer for a year if their parents so wished.

Most children start school in the September after their fourth birthday.

The current law would be amended so that deferred children do not reach compulsory school starting age until September 1 after their fifth birthday.

Nine in 10 who responded to the consultation, which ended on January 4, were in favour of giving parents the option to delay.

Professor Tony Gallagher from Queen’s University said an extra year in a child’s development before starting primary school can be advantageous.

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“Parents are well placed to decide whether their child would benefit from going into primary education straight away or having a year in pre-school, which is a different sort of experience and helps them be more ready to start learning once they get into primary school,” he said.

“It’s clear from the consultation that most were strongly in favour of this change and it’s good that the department has gone along with that.”

In 2014 a 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 a his successor Peter Weir early in 2021, and current minister Michelle McIlveen is continuing to press for the change.

Green MLA Rachel Woods urged Stormont to speed up the process.

“Children in Northern Ireland start school at one of the lowest ages in Europe, and increased flexibility will be a huge benefit for those who, for example, are born prematurely or are young for their year,” she said.

“I know that parents and teachers have been frustrated by the Executive’s slow progress.

“The five Executive parties’ inaction on this issue must now be rectified by ensuring that the will of the public as expressed in this consultation is implemented so this is passed in time for next year’s pupil intake.”

Last month department official Dr Suzanne Kingon told Stormont’s Education Committee: “It remains extremely difficult and challenging, but possible if accelerated passage is granted, and we’re working to develop a timetable in terms of bringing the Bill forward.

“A lot obviously depends on Executive agreement and getting the Bill through the relevant stages of the Assembly in a timely fashion, but it is our aim to do that.”

This year’s admissions process opened on Monday with over 21,000 applications already received for starting in September 2022.

The Education Authority is expecting over 40,000 applications before admissions close at noon on Friday, January 28.


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