School starting age campaigners call on Northern Ireland Assembly for action

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School starting age campaigners in Northern Ireland are today (Wednesday) meeting with the Northern Ireland Assembly's Education Committee to urge 'speedy action' on introducing a more flexible system.


The umbrella group, led by the parents’ organisation-ParentsOutLoud and teaching union ATL, will ask for the Committee’s help in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s education minister John O’Dowd makes the school admissions system more flexible as soon as possible.

In May, the education minister agreed to look at ways of introducing deferred school entry for summer-born children and those with developmental issues, where a child’s parents feel this would be in their best interests.

Northern Ireland has the lowest statutory school starting age in Europe. Children must start school in the September after their fourth birthday.

Campaigners have highlighted the more flexible systems used in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England.

In the Republic of Ireland, children can start school at any time between the ages of four and six. In Scotland, children are required to start school the August term after their fifth birthday, however some local authorities permit some children to defer school entry and keep them in an early years setting for an extra year free of charge.

In England, the statutory school age is five and parents have a choice about what term their child starts school within that time span.

The Department for Education recently issued revised guidance for local authorities and parents on deferring the admission of summer-born children to school.

Last week, Annette Brooke MP for mid Dorset and North Poole chaired a debate in the House of Commons on the subject, calling for more flexibility in the school system.

Liz Fawcett, Northern Ireland representative of ParentsOutLoud, said, ‘Both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland appear able to manage a flexible approach to school starting age without any undue problems.

‘Now that the Government in England is also taking action on this issue, we hope the education minister will act as speedily as possible, and we’re certainly heartened by the Committee’s interest in the issue.’

Among the campaigners meeting with the Northern Assembly’s Education Committee is teacher Mary O’Brien (pictured with her son), who has had experience of the issue as both a teacher and parent.

Ms O’Brien, who works at Aquinas Grammar School in south Belfast had to send her son Darragh to school at the start of this month, despite feeling that he wasn’t ready for formal education. Darragh was born prematurely and turned four at the end of June, making him four years and two months old when he started school.

She said, ‘During my years as a secondary school teacher, I’ve seen evidence of young for year children, especially boys, struggle compared to their peers.

‘That’s what makes me particularly concerned about how Darragh is going to manage, given that my husband and I were left with no choice but to send him before he is ready.

‘Darragh is quite small compared to most of the other children in his class. But, more importantly, he’s just not ready developmentally. I think it’s very unfair that we’ve been forced into this position.’

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