DfE Mumsnet Mystery

question marksOn January 24, 2014 the Department for Education wrote on their Facebook page: “We’re often asked what the policy is on summer-born children starting school. Here’s a useful article on Mumsnet where we set out our views.

It posted a link to this original article, underneath which readers began to post numerous comments; then four days later, on January 28, the DfE’s own post, plus all the readers’ comments, disappeared from its Facebook page.

A short time later, an amended version of the article appeared on the Mumsnet website. These are some of the comments that were posted, and refer to extracts that appeared in the original article:

• Re “What happens if your child’s application for deferred or delayed entry is accepted: …It’s up to the admission authority for the secondary school then to decide whether they are willing to accept that child to begin year 7 (in most authorities) at age 12 rather than the normal age 11.
A parent has sought legal advice regarding this and was advised “Applying to another school or out of borough or upon secondary transfer if the adopted group is not continued could be classified as discrimination under the equality act 2010 and would hold significant weight at tribunal…
Would the DfE care to comment on this? The DfE statement appears to be contrary to legal advice received.

• “or, the child enters reception after they’ve turned 5; technically a year ‘late’.” Those other summer borns that are moving up to Y1 at that point, started school a whole year before compulsory age, therefore it is not that summer borns starting in ‘reception class’ at ‘compulsory school age’ are starting ‘late’, rather that those moving up to Y1 ‘technically’ started a year ‘early’.

• “Many parents find that they are refused the option to delay their child’s entry into reception until the year after, unless they can prove ‘exceptional circumstances’. So while flexibility exists the reality is the final decision rests with the authorities.
Yet the DfE has previously advised parents that: it is the government’s view that there should not need to be any exceptional reasons for a summer born child to be admitted to the reception class rather than year one at age 5.
UNCRC Article 3, paragraph 1. By not ensuring that admission authorities are acting consistently (different admissions authorities are at liberty to come to completely different decisions for the SAME child) the government is failing in its obligation to ensure that the child’s best interests are appropriately integrated and consistently applied in every action taken by a public institution.

• Also there are a couple of inaccuracies – you don’t have to apply in advance of the year your child turns five unless you intend to send them that year (unless I’ve misunderstood it and it means making an application for them to start when they’re five??). Also it’s not ultimately the authority’s decision WHEN they start school – they can’t make you admit your child before compulsory school age. They can only make a decision on which year group it is in the child’s best interest to be educated in.

• There appear to be some important inconsistencies and missing information in this Mumsnet article, which is concerning given that the DfE has posted it here on its FB page, in the context of setting out its views. For example:

1.) Re: “The admissions authority will consider a number of things when looking into your request”. The DfE’s July 2013 advice also includes this factor: “the needs of the child and the possible impact on them of entering year 1 without having first attended the reception class;
This is noticeably absent from the bullet point list in the Mumsnet article; does the DfE intend to notify the authors and ensure that it is added?

2.) Re: “Be reassured, if your child is starting school as one of the youngest, teachers are highly skilled in supporting children who have widely ranging abilities. They’re well trained in helping children who are younger to settle in a new environment. Reception is a good basis for the rest of primary.
The DfE’s July 2013 highlighted the issue of “relevant research, into the outcomes of summer born and premature children“, which has long demonstrated greater challenges across academic. social and emotional measures for summer born children. Again, why is this extremely relevant information not referred to here? No matter how skilled or well trained teachers are, the issues faced by some summer born children, as a direct result of starting school too early, cannot be avoided or ‘fixed’, and many parents know this instinctively.
Also, the DfE has elsewhere in public department documents described Reception class as “”critical in enabling children to do well and enjoy their later years at school“, which is why so many parents are objecting to the Year 1 start being proposed for summer born children who begin school at compulsory school age.

3.) Re: “It’s important to note that whichever option you choose, you’ll need to apply for school places ahead of the academic year in which your child turns 5 – even if you don’t want them to attend school until the following year.
The DfE’s July 2013 advice states “A7. Parents should discuss this as soon as possible with the schools they are interested in applying for and the local authority. Parents should make it clear that they wish to apply for a reception place a year later than the year into which the child could have been admitted.

Does the DfE plan to clarify this point with Mumsnet, or is the DfE suggesting something new here – i.e. that parents should apply for a place in BOTH years, including the year that they DON’T WANT? It is questionable whether such a proposal is either ‘simple’ or ‘fair’ for parents (as promised by the Education Secretary in 2011) – or indeed for the entire primary school admissions administrative system.

The pressure on parents to succumb and apply for a place for their child earlier than compulsory school age is already immense – and worse still with no right of appeal. Therefore will the DfE clarify with Mumsnet that neither the 2012 Code nor the 2012 DfE Advice says parents “need to apply for the school places ahead of the academic year in which your child turns 5“? Or is the suggesting here that parents should probably do this because the “flexibility in the system” as it stands is extremely inconsistent throughout the country?

4. Re: “exceptional circumstances“, Correspondence from the DfE to parents of summer born children has stated in the past, “it is the governments view that there does not need to be any exceptional reason or special need for a summer-born child to enter reception rather than Y1 at compulsory school age,
And in September 2013, Elizabeth Truss MP stated, “We are absolutely clear that parents should be able to say to a school. “We want our child, who is aged five, to enter reception”, if they feel that is in the best interest of their child.” Ms Truss also talked about wanting to “empower” parents, and yet strong messages like these, which would be very helpful for concerned parents, are unfortunately absent from the DfE’s messages in this Mumsnet article.

The Mumsnet editorial team has confirmed that it worked with the DfE to gain information for the original article, and also the subsequent amendments and deletions. So while we were pleased to see Mumsnet covering this hugely important issue, we remain very concerned with the DfE’s apparently contradictory communication to parents, the media, and ultimately, admission authorities.

Article by Michelle Melson.


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