Call to change 'unfair' school start age

Published Tuesday, 07 May 2013
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Parents and teachers have called for changes to the school starting age in Northern Ireland, saying the current system is unfair to those born in May or June.

Call to change 'unfair' school start age
There have been calls to adopt a "more flexible" policy. (© UTV)

Northern Ireland is the only country in Europe to send children to school at the age of four.

However the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, has agreed to consider giving the parents of younger children born in May or June the option of deferring their entry for a year.

A Professor of Education at Queen's University believes it's important to make the system more flexible, explaining that there is no need for it to be as rigid as it is.

"There is no evidence that sending children to formal education that early confers any academic advantage, in fact if anything there's a sense there may be a slight academic or psychological disadvantage to starting so young," Tony Gallagher told UTV.

"It appears to be part of a long-standing tradition that people aren't questioning."

Children in NI who turn four before 2 July are legally obliged to start the next September.

That means if a child reaches their fourth birthday in May, June or even the first of July, they are taught with children who may have celebrated their fifth birthday almost a year earlier.

Basically, they are going to play catch-up for the rest of their school years.

Siobhan McQuaid

Siobhan McQuaid, who is vice principal at Holy Family Primary School in north Belfast, believes the system is unfair.

"I have been teaching at Holy Family for the last 23 years and I have noticed one or two children every year are not developmentally ready for primary school," she said.

"I think they are seriously disadvantaged because there are many children in the class who are one year older than them - who are ready to colour, to hold pencils, to read, to write - and really we find these children are always playing catch-up.

"We really feel if they was a little bit of flexibility in the system and these children were allowed to take another year in the preschool setting, they would have the chance to maximise their opportunities in school."

Maureen Johnston's oldest child Andrew was born on 17 June.

He was just four years and two months when he started school in September. Given the choice she would have deferred Andrew's entry for a year.

"He was very young, he was very immature," she explained. "He's the oldest in our family so he's still quite babyish but he's paving the way for everyone else. Andrew was exhausted, he had naps after school and he was very withdrawn and lacked confidence and maturity.

"I felt frustrated, out of control. There is no real reason for it so it was such an anguished time for us, it really was."

The pressure group Parents Outloud met the Education Minister last Monday.

It has lobbied for years to introduce a more flexible system similar to Scotland's - where deferral is allowed - and the minister has agreed to consider it.

It could mean around 3,000 pupils delay their entry into P1.

The group hope John O'Dowd will announce a decision in the coming weeks so that parents of children born in May or June can choose to defer entry to P1 by September 2014.

Ms Johnston said the benefits of change outweigh the costs.

"The policy at the moment doesn't allow for parents decisions, if you're forced into sending your child to school but you don't feel they're ready," she said.

"We're his parents, we know him better than anyone else so they should allow for individuality because one size does not fit all."

© UTV News
Comments Comments
17 Comments
Glenn in Carrick wrote (534 days ago):
My daughter started school at four and is struggling. It is far too young to begin primary school. They also have spelling tests every Friday where pupils who do well get a cold star on the wall chart. Every Friday my daughter comes home in floods of tears because she didn't get a star. The amount of homework she gets for such a young age is also a disgrace. Thanks to a flawed system and poor school policies my daughter already dislikes school, when she has really only just started on her educational path. If you judge a fish on it's ability to climb trees, it will grow up forever thinking it's stupid.
Pauline Hull in England wrote (535 days ago):
Ironically, despite the fact that legislation already exists in England to allow ALL summer born children to start school in the term following their 5th birthday, parents of children turning 4 in May, June, July and August are, in practice, still forced to start their children in school up to a whole year early (i.e. this September). Otherwise their child, at age 5, will be made to join their 'chronological peers' in the SECOND year of primary school, having missed out on their entire foundation year. The practice of starting 'early' has become so normal that parents who simply want to follow the law are now campaigning for schools and councils to adhere to the law, and asking the DfE to ensure that flexibility is allowed.
Ingeborg McElwaine in Bangor wrote (535 days ago):
I think it will be a great leap forward for Northern Ireland when little children of four will not be forced to go to school regardless. I did my teacher training in Norway where children started school in the calendar year they were 7. We gave them chubby crayons, traced letter in sand and water with the index finger etc. .In the years before 7, the emphasis was on giving children experiences and vocabulary to prepare them for reading. After Christmas in P1 it was like a light went on in practically everybody's head and they were able to read proper children's books very quickly. I think that the reason so many children in Northern Ireland leave school without decent reading and writing ability,is because they are presented with formal tasks before they are ready for it. In Norway we learnt about The Optimal Time for learning. When you try to teach them too soon,it is like drawing blood from a stone at best or it destroys their learning experiences as well as being psychologically harmful at worst.
Anon in Bangor wrote (535 days ago):
My youngest started school aged 4 on the 1st July, 13 years ago. I, too, tried to ask for this to be deferred for a year, as her brother was one of the eldest in his class, being born on 20th August. Again, I was given a straight out 'no'. Thus my children of 22 months age difference are only one year apart in school. My youngest struggled throughout Primary School, barely scraping a C2 in the 11+. HOWEVER, let me offer hope ahead for those struggling now. Although she did take 2 years to really settle in High School, she gained 6 A*,1 A and 2 B's in her GCSE's and is currently taking AS levels. Whilst I STILL would have preferred to have deferred that year as I do not believe 4 year olds are mature enough to cope in school, if you are already stuck in this terrible system, PLEASE hang on in there, it does improve.
J in Newtownabbey wrote (535 days ago):
My son has a May birthday and I wish I had the option to defer his year of entry to school. He is a year younger than some of his classmates and that year does make a difference in opinion. l believe that year would have helped him gain in confidence and maturity. I would like parents to given more of a say in when their children start school as they know them best.
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