Education Committee ‘School Starting Age’ Comments by Michelle Melson

charlie and lolaOne of the authors of the January 2014 Summer Born report, Michelle Melson, has submitted these comments to the Education Committee’s ‘Evidence check’ forum on School Starting Age:

PART 1 – DfE paragraph 2 “Parents who feel their child is not ready to start school before the compulsory school age”. Has the DfE even considered the fact that some parents just do not want their children to start school prior to Compulsory School Age and that they will not be starting school prior to this irrespective of ‘school readiness’?

In addition, parents of summer-born children may request that their child is admitted to the reception class…”

The DfE makes it sound like a simple request when it is not; parents of summer born children who wish their child to start in reception class AT Compulsory School Age have to endure an entirely separate and very different process to that of parents of children born at any other time of the year. Where is “normal age group” defined in primary legislation? ‘Relevant age group’ is defined in primary legislation and summer born children starting school in reception class at Compulsory School Age fit perfectly within the legal meanings provided in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, since amended. I have commented on this further in the ‘Summer Born’ evidence check.

These include clarification of the circumstances an admission authority should consider when making a decision on requests for children to be admitted outside their normal age group.” Some local authorities are setting up ‘panels’ to decided whether or not a child starting school at compulsory school age is entitled to enter what has always been an entry class to primary school. There is also disagreement and confusion between local authorities on what this actually means, as demonstrated in the local authority responses to the DfE’s consultation on the School Admissions Code – read article here.

PART 2 – There is even disagreement between the Office of the Schools Adjudicator’s interpretation of the Code. The OSA believes that summer born children starting school in reception class is an ‘exceptional provision’yet the DfE has advised parents that there does not need to be any special reason for a summer born child to enter Reception class rather than Year 1. These differing interpretations will lead no doubt lead to clashes and confusion for parents by the very body supposed to adjudicate on admission arrangements. All parties seem to be starting off on the wrong foot from the outset, because the Code is not clear.

A welcome addition to this Code is that these applications (IF granted) cannot now be put to ‘the bottom of the pile’ as some admission authorities were advising would happen and as determined by the Local Government Ombudsman as being the correct way to process these applications.

DfE paragraph 4 “Although attendance at school is compulsory from five years old, many children start school prior to this – for example there were 624,000 four year-olds in state-funded primary school in January 2014”.

School does not become compulsory, only education, and furthermore, compulsory age is not “from five years old”. “..many children…” I suggest that this is not “many”, but most children, as there is an expectation by admission authorities and schools that children must start school PRIOR to compulsory school age. Some schools do not even know what compulsory school age is; many schools have told parents that children MUST be in school age four.

DfE paragraph 5 “It was therefore in schools’ interests to lower the starting age by creating reception classes” Schools did not create ‘reception classes’ in the 1980’s for four year olds, an extra year wasn’t squeezed into primary school life – it was more a case of follow of the child, follow the money. How the entry class has been termed may have changed, and differed from school to school, but schools did not create an extra year.

PART 3 – DfE paragraph 8 “In the UK, 86% of three-year-olds and 67% of four-year-olds attend early education provision (a further 30% of four-year-olds attend primary education).” Education is a devolved issue, what are the figures for England? Where are these figures from? What is the DfE’s term of reference for ‘primary education’? Are they including ‘reception class’ and its equivalent in other areas of the UK in this definition?

DfE paragraph 6 – “…it must be noted that in some countries children are often admitted to school earlier than statutory age, as is the case in England.

In England, it is more than often, it is usual practice. It is very difficult for parents to be able to admit their children to school AT compulsory school age. For summer born children this can be extremely difficult without the child being made by admission authorities to skip reception entirely, with the burden of proof being on parents to prove there is something ‘wrong’ with their child (and often while the child is still only 3 years old) before being able to access a full education i.e. seven years of Primary School and five years of Secondary School. Even when a summer born child is given permission to be admitted to reception class AT compulsory school age, there is no procedural guarantee to ensure that these children are not forced by a school or admission authority to skip an entire year of school at some point further down the line. This does happen, and the DfE is aware of this.

As for the rest of the DfE’s evidence regarding School Starting Age and student achievement, there is a focus on pre-school (non-compulsory in England) attendance, which is not what was asked of them. Is this the DfE’s way of saying that early education is beneficial? Or perhaps that Year 1 is ‘technically’ the start of school (which is incorrect)? If so, why is it acceptable to them that a child can be forced to miss Reception class by an admissions authority?

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