Risk of school starting age at two, report warns

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Some primary schools’ practice of giving priority places to children who have attended their nurseries, means that children are effectively starting school at two, the children’s commissioner has warned.

off-to-school

This also means that children from poorer families risk losing out on places because some schools favour parents who pay for some nursery provision.

It also found that some schools charge as much as £300 for uniforms, which may dissuade low-income parents for applying.

The children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson’s investigation into the schools admissions process reveals the daunting process many parents face in securing a primary school place for their child.

It also highlights that some parents of children with special educational needs are put off applying for certain schools.

Today, for the first time, all local authorities in England will send out their offer of a primary school place to parents on the same day, dubbed National Offer Day.

The report, ‘It might be best if you looked elsewhere’, says that, ‘In some cases, it could be argued that using this admissions criterion imposes a de facto age of compulsory schooling for a child of two years of age, on parents who want to send their child to that school at four, the usual age of entry to Reception year.’

This chief schools adjudicator, Dr Elizabeth Passmore, has recently called for the Department for Education to publish more guidance to schools on the same issue.

Ms Atkinson said, ‘This report shows that while the vast majority of schools, of all types, play by the rules on admissions, some may inadvertently break the rules.

‘Although when this happens, the systems in place are usually strong enough to put things right, a small number of parents, particularly those whose children have special education needs, felt that they were being put off from applying for a place at certain schools. This might not be the school’s intention. However, it is the effect of what schools say and do that matters, both to the parents and in law.’

The report recommends that when schools review admissions policies they make sure that nothing they do, or do not do, would put people off applying for a place. This might include the messages they have on their website, their policy on uniform or school trips, or how they answer questions from parents.

In a separate poll by parenting website Netmums, 46 per cent of 1,000 parents surveyed, said that they had put their child into a nursery linked to their preferred primary school to boost their chances of getting a primary place.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'These findings will do nothing to allay concerns that, as a result of Government policy, we are now moving towards a situation in which an average school starting age of just two is the norm. The Alliance has long argued that such a move is misguided and potentially detrimental to children’s early development, a concern echoed by both the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers this week.
 
'No parent should feel that choosing a high-quality group setting or childminder, rather than a school nursery, to care for their young child will negatively impact on their chances of securing a primary school place later on down the line. The fact that nearly half do highlights a fundamental flaw in the current admissions process that urgently needs addressing.'

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said the findings were a real concern.

'Parents should not feel pressured into putting their very young children into a school nursery purely to try and secure a place at primary level.

'Over the years parents have found themselves facing an increasing number of hoops to jump through in order to get their children into their choice of school and we must ensure this does not extend to a child’s early years.

'If parents choose to use nursery provision for their children, the decision as to where they send their child needs to be based on the high quality care they will receive in a setting that suits the whole family. It cannot be made under the pressure of how it will affect a child’s future school places.

'Very young children need the specialist care and facilities nursery practitioners and the settings they work in provide. The Government should be turning its attention to ensuring there are enough primary school places rather than focusing, as it is at the moment, on schools duplicating the early years provision that already exists.'