Northern Ireland education minister considers flexible school starting age

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School starting age campaigners in Northern Ireland have welcomed a commitment by the education minister John O'Dowd to look in to making the age summer-born children start school more flexible.

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In a meeting this week, campaigners, including teaching union ATL, Early Years  - the organisation for children, primary school teachers and parents, called on the education minister - John O’Dowd to consider deferring school entry for summer-born children and those with developmental issues.

Northern Ireland has the lowest statutory school starting age in Europe. Children must start school in the September after their 4th birthday, a year earlier than in England, where by law children are required to start school the term after their 5th birthday.

The campaigners highlighted to the minister the more flexible systems used in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

In Scotland, children are required to start primary school in the August term after their fifth birthday. Parents in the Republic of Ireland can defer their child’s school entry and keep them in an early years setting for an extra year.

Following their call, the minister publicly stated that he would examine ways in which a degree of flexibility in the school system might be introduced.

Liz Fawcett, Northern Ireland representative of ParentsOutloud, a campaign group made up of parents, who attended the meeting, said, ‘The current inflexible system in Northern Ireland means that every year some children are starting school at an inappropriately early age, which may handicap them throughout their school career.

‘We are delighted that the minister listened very sympathetically and told us he recognised that we are highlighting an issue which needs to be addressed.

‘He has promised to consider our case with care and we hope that he will be able to act to tackle this problem.’

Another parent at the meeting, Roisin Gilheany from Omagh (pictured), who successfully deferred her son’s school entry, said, ‘Most parents who try to get their child’s school enrolment deferred simply meet a road block, they’re told they can’t possibly do it. The only official way is to home school your child for a year- and then you may well be told your child has to go into P2 rather than P1, which isn’t satisfactory.

‘All we want is a little bit of flexibility to ensure that every child has the best possible start. We’re so pleased that the minister understood where we are coming from.’

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