Education Committee ‘School Starting Age’ Comments by Pauline Hull

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

PART 1 – Principally the Committee should be concerned that in its evidence on SSA, the DfE has itself incorrectly cited compulsory school age (CSAge) twice. This is a huge red flag.

Re: 2. “rather than year one (their normal age group)” [All #s refer to DfE’s evidence]

Primary legislation does not refer to ‘normal age group’ and it appears this phrase has been adopted largely because it’s now ‘the norm’ for children in England to start school at age 4. The system has encouraged (forced) an age 4 start to such an extent that an age 5 start is not considered ‘normal’ – or even permissible – by many (see January 2014 report)
Ministers describe SB children joining their ‘peers’ who are moving into Year 1, when other children entering Reception (anywhere between 1 day and 5 months younger) are just as much their peer group. According to legal definitions of CSAge and Reception, a 5 year-old SB child in Reception is perfectly normal.

Ironically, the DfE is using 2.17 of the Code to cover all SB admissions (even though it doesn’t provide the same right of appeal as all other first entry applicants have); it says children who have ‘missed part of a year’ can seek places outside their ‘normal’ year group. But ALL CSAge SB applicants are not yet ‘in’ a year group, and if placed in Year 1, will miss a WHOLE year of school, not just part, despite Australian research (Zubrick 2014) finding there’s “no safe level of missing school” because of “negative consequences for a student’s academic achievement…”.

Re: “can request that their child attends part-time”.
The DfE’s own evidence demonstrates that merely giving parents the right to ‘request’ this is inadequate and has led to forced full-time attendance against their wishes. Ref.5 (DFERR023) shows just 0.4% (2,490) of all 4 year-olds in primary school (Table 1a) and 0.44% (2,750) of all children in Reception class (Table 1d) are part-time, and contrasts with parents’ preferences in the (SB ref.9) TNS-BMRB 2010 survey. There is a HUGE difference between what parents want and what actually happens. Even anecdotally, I know of 4 children in ONE class alone whose parents enquired about part-time and/or deferral but were told full-time at age 4 was expected.

Re: 3. “clarification of the circumstances”.
This stipulation has already led to increased administrative workloads (some councils employing specialist ‘medical panels’ and sending educational psychologists out to parents’ home in order to assess whether their 3 year-old ‘needs’ to wait until CSAge), plus increased parental correspondence to the DfE; and it will only get worse once more parents in England become aware of true CSAge (notably – even many teachers, head teachers, pre-school and LEA staff have believed up until recently that it was ‘by the age of 5’ or ‘in the term/year the child is 5’, and many parents and pre-schools still don’t realise EYE funding continues up until CSAge).

There is no ‘clarity’ in the Code, since at the core of each person’s request, the ‘circumstances’ are exactly the same (it’s responses to requests that are vastly different): parents want their child to start school at CSAge and experience a full education beginning in Reception, with no fear of repercussions (e.g. skipped year) later on. A SB child is a SB child (though the DfE’s July 2013 advice added a further layer of obfuscation by stating that most requests will likely come from parents of children born later in the summer). Weighting should not be given to one birth date over another, ‘exceptional circumstances’, gathering of medical, educational, psychological or any other ‘evidence’ should not be required. These are parents who do not wish to apply for a school place (when their child is 3) to begin school age 4, or to have their application disadvantaged, or be penalised later on– by waiting until lawful CSAge. Finally, if the Code was sufficiently clear, the DfE wouldn’t differ in opinion to the OSA (which views 5 year-old SBs in Reception as ‘exceptional provision’ only) and the LGO (which viewed discriminatory SB admissions practices as acceptable), and it wouldn’t need to keep producing additional explanatory non-statutory advice (that no one has to adhere to anyway).

PART 2 – 4. Observed school starting age – “Although attendance at school is compulsory from five years old, many children start school prior to this”.
There should be serious concern about the DfE’s observations here – in particular, its lack of accuracy in communicating primary legislation. Firstly, ‘education’ is compulsory but ‘school’ is not (note Qu.1 of SB ref.9 TNS-BMRB 2010 makes this same mistake). Secondly, CSAge is the ‘term following a child’s 5th birthday’; it is not ‘from 5 years old’. Finally, the word ‘many’ is a serious understatement; it should read ‘majority of’, ‘nearly all’ or ‘most’ since 99.9% of children enter Reception at age 4 (ref. DFERR023). The facts are glaring – CSAge legislation is blatantly ignored, as are parents’ and children’s legal rights.

Terminology is so important here. Parents are only ‘delaying’ in the context of a system that has forced children to start school EARLY for so long that waiting until CSAge is perceived as a ‘delay’. Also, it is mistakes like these that result in the problems we see for all children, and especially SB children. The 2009 and 2010 School Admission Codes contained inaccurate definitions of ‘Reception Class’, leading admissions authorities (AAs) and school staff to believe that children could only be in Reception if they were turning 5 during that academic year. Not true. And in March 2013 I personally received a letter via my MP from then Education Secretary Michael Gove, which said, “All children must start school by the time they reach their fifth birthday”. Not true. If even Mr. Gove can make this mistake, and in its own ‘Evidence Check’ to you, the DfE is still making CSAge errors, what hope do parents have when ‘requesting’ a CSAge start? All too often parents are more knowledgeable of primary legislation than councils, schools and the govt., but regardless, the power ultimately lies with AAs, and the DfE refuses to act on promises to parents (e.g. Laws 2014).

5. “a number of possible reasons”.
One reason is insidious blackmail forcing early entry; school start at age 4 is often an implied condition of securing a place in a preferred school (e.g. threat of Year 1 entry at CSAge with no right of appeal or being arbitrarily ‘returned’ to ‘correct’ year group in the future (this happens); and risk of no school place at all if Year 1 is full). Parents are frequently told that part-time and deferred entry is not permissible; head teachers will even openly cite funding as a reason for not allowing a January school start (bec. head count occurs in autumn) or express concern about tests and results (e.g. EYFSP and phonics) if children miss too much of the curriculum.

Re: “creating reception classes”.
It’s important to note that Infant 1 of primary school was renamed ‘Reception’; an extra school year was not ‘added’, and I mention this because sometimes Year 1 is referred to as ‘technically’ the start of school when Reception is the normal entry class to primary school. Where is the evidence that missing this “critical” (DfE’s word) year and entering Year 1 is in children’s best interests? The argument goes that ‘for some children this may not be appropriate or in the best interests of the child’, but where is the evidence? U.S. research on delay versus retaining in schools where children start school at age 6 and where high quality pre-school is still largely a luxury afforded by the rich is not a relevant comparison. What about Canada, Scotland, Denmark and Australia? School start flexibility exists with full parental choice, but this approach is not fully explored – and separately to subsequent relative age effects, which will likely always persist to some extent in any ‘age group’ system.

6. Again, “age 5” is not England’s statutory school starting age. The DfE has a duty and responsibility to ensure greater accuracy on this point. The Code should reflect primary legislation, yet the DfE itself repeatedly miscommunicates this most basic fact.

Re: “in some countries children are often admitted to school earlier than statutory age, as is the case in England”.
It would be interesting to know what percentage of children in these countries are admitted earlier than CSAge (in comparison to our rate of 99.9%), and how many are age 4 (sometimes even age 3)? Country comparison evidence in the 1998 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary “Too Much Too Young demonstrates how gender and relative age gaps are exacerbated by both our early starting age and early formal education.

7. Given that we know almost all children starting school in England are 4 and not 5, this drastically sets us apart from the other 213 countries.

8. These examples only further emphasise how far apart we are from other countries – though I wonder whether the 30% figure cited here for 4 year-olds may refer to UK-wide rather than English data?

PART 3 – Fundamentally, the strength of the DfE’s evidence, both here and in the Evidence Check for summer born children, is weakened by the fact that it is largely founded on an imprecise knowledge/awareness of CSAge and its flexibilities for ALL children. Even the DfE itself miscommunicates CSAge, as shown here – and also in SB ref.9, which says “demand for childcare would increase if parents had the option of delaying school start dates”.

IF?

Parents DO legally have this option. It’s the Code and the DfE’s statutory provision of part-time and Reception at CSAge ‘REQUESTS ONLY’ that is making it so hard for us to practicably exercise that option.

Now the CSAge cat is out of the bag, and there are increasing numbers of informed parents seeking greater flexibility all round, it would be prudent for DfE policy to consider whether a full education or a reduced one is best when summer born children enter school at CSAge, and to deliver a Reception curriculum which recognises that some, not all, (autumn, spring or summer born) children’s parents want to defer their entry to part way through the year or enrol them part-time. Otherwise, England’s true legal definition of compulsory school age will remain meaningless.

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