DfE Promised Flexibility but Look what it Chose to Change in the Code

IMG_6840DfE Ministers (very likely because they have limited detailed knowledge of what DfE officials are actually doing behind the scenes – though this is no excuse) keep stating publicly that “the key thing is flexibility“; we want to “empower parents” and we “will take action [if schools] are not paying attention to parental demand“.

But the truth is, the DfE has made a bad situation (2012 Code) worse (2014 Code), and even rewritten its Summer Born Advice in a way that gives admissions authorities more loop holes than ever before, and has helped them to ‘legally’ refuse fair and equal access to 12 years of education for our children.

Here’s how:

  • Critically, the DfE changed the definition of Reception class.

In 2012, it was defined as “An entry class to primary school” but since December 19, 2014 it is now just “a class”.
This amendment appears to have been made in order to better reflect the DfE’s position that ‘technically‘ Year 1 is the start of school, and ‘children are not entitled to 7 years of primary school if starting school at CSAge‘.

  • For the first time, a CSAge summer born child’s admission to the normal entry point of school has been classified as ‘outside their normal age group by the DfE (in section 2.17).

This is despite the fact that primary legislation (SSFA 1998) defines relevant age group as: “the age group at which pupils are or will normally be admitted to the school” and the DfE’s 2012 Code defined it as: “the age group at which pupils are or will normally be admitted to the school e.g. reception or year 7 (Section 142 of the SSFA 1998)

The 2014 Code contradicts the 2012 Code (and therefore the DfE has contradicted itself and its own previous interpretation of the SSFA 1998) by now legislating Year 1 as the relevant age group for all summer born children applying for first time entry to school at CSAge, and says parents can only “request” entry to Reception class, with no right of appeal if Year 1 is offered instead.

The DfE (ab)used its legislative powers via the Code to construct an admissions process for summer born children that matched the department’s view (not the view of primary legislation) that “technically” Year 1 should be the start of school for CSAge summer born children.

  • No protection against being forced to miss a year of school later on.

Despite numerous requests (including at meetings with the DfE), and evidence of harrowing consequences for children, the 2014 Code contains no procedural safeguards to stop schools and/or admission authorities forcing a summer born child to leapfrog a year of school (into their ‘correct’ chronological year group) against their parents’ wishes, at any point in either their primary or secondary education.

On the contrary, the DfE has confirmed to parents that they have no right to insist that their summer born child receive 7 years of primary education (only an education which meets their needs), even though children have received these 7 years in England for decades, and any unauthorised absence during this period is now a criminal offence.

  • Section 2.17 was specially altered to ‘fit’ summer born admissions.

The Summer Born Campaign group has always maintained that section 2.17 of the 2012 Code was never intended for the purpose of first entry admissions to school, and stressed this to the DfE on numerous occasions. In particular, there is no right of appeal, which every other primary school entry applicant has the right to, but also, the reasons cited for ‘admission outside normal age group’ were clearly in the context of a child already in school:

2012 Code: “Admission of children outside their normal age group – Parents of gifted and talented children, or those who have experienced problems or missed part of a year, for example due to ill health, can seek places outside their normal age group.

For more than two years, we pointed out that even if 2.17 were applied to summer born children starting school, essentially they had all missed not just “part of a year” but a whole year, and should therefore logically qualify for Reception class entry at CSAge.

But the 2014 Code now reads: “Parents may seek a place for their child outside of their normal age group, for example, if the child is gifted and talented or has experienced problems such as ill health.

Ironically (and this is a generous description of the DfE’s actions), the DfE removed any reference to the child having ‘missed part of a year’ in 2.17, in full knowledge that some councils in its Summer Born Admissions Stakeholder group (a group to which the Summer Born Campaign group has never been invited – despite representing an increasingly large user group of the people most affected by the Code and Advice) are wholly against flexibility for children without SEN.

  • New list of ‘reasons’ for a CSAge start effectively raised the bar and encouraged insistence on SEN or ‘exceptional circumstances.

Summer born admissions are predominantly based on CSAge legislation, but many admission authorities are now insisting on medical, academic and social ‘evidence’ to support a CSAge school start.

And this is largely because the DfE’s 2014 Code now says in 2.17A:

Admission authorities must make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned. This will include taking account of the parent’s views; information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional; whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group; and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely.

Bear in mind, the DfE Advice says parents should make their ‘request’ one year early (and apply for an age 4 start they don’t want), which means that at the time of submitting all the information above, their summer born children are just 3 years-old.

How many 3 year-olds have “previously been educated out of their normal age group”?

My own summer born child wasn’t even in pre-school or nursery when I made my ‘request‘ for a fair and equitable CSAge start in Reception.

And with respect to children who “may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely”, their CSAge legal right is the exact same as any other summer born child – to choose to wait until the term following their 5th birthday before starting school.

The DfE does not offer parents of children born two weeks overdue the option of leaving school one year early – in the ‘higher age group they may naturally have fallen into‘. And under no other circumstance, in no other area of DfE policy, for no other children than those born in summer, does the DfE suggest that there may be “individual circumstances” or evidence of “best interests” for a child to miss a year of school against their parents’ wishes. It’s as illogical as it is unfair.

  • Nothing changed to stop the postcode lottery for summer born admissions

The DfE knew that different admissions authorities’ policy positions meant a postcode lottery (e.g. no special reason other than ‘summer born’ can be supported by one admissions authority while a huge pile of professional and medical ‘evidence’ can be rejected by another); it also knew that parental knowledge, and the ability to fight for fair access, is widening the inequality gap because many parents denied flexibility can often feel powerless to fight or do not have the financial resources available to pay for private, independent ‘evidence’ (which many are now doing). Or indeed to fight in the knowledge that they have a ‘back-up plan’ of home education or private education.

  • Head teachers’ views must be taken into account, regardless of actual ‘admissions authority’.

This new change in the 2014 Code has had negative repercussions for some parents of summer born children who had had their request agreed to by the council (as the admission authority), but then the council said the parent must also seek permission from each individual school, and the council will give weight to the views of those schools as part of its decision-making process.

Disagreement between schools and councils on this issue is not uncommon, and in fact prior to the 2014 Code, a number of parents had succeeded in securing a CSAge Reception class start by gaining agreement from a school that is its ‘own admissions authority (e.g. Free School, Academy or Voluntary-Aided) when the council had said ‘no’ – or vice versa, gaining agreement from the council when the school/s had said ‘no’.

This change has resulted in some parents (with requests already agreed for September 2015 and 2016) facing making their “request” again – with schools – and has also meant that previously ‘very flexible’ councils are now waiting to hear from head teachers before agreeing to individual requests. Couple this with the increased expectation of ‘evidence‘ and it’s clear that things have got worse.

  • The Code discriminates against “an identified group of children”* (i.e. summer born).

*Committee on the Rights of the Children General comment No. 14 (2013) on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration (art. 3, para. 1) Adopted by the Committee at its sixty-second session (14 January – 1 February 2013).

The admissions process for first entry to school (and despite primary legislation defining ‘relevant age group‘ as above, and Reception class as “a class in which education is provided which is suitable to the requirements of pupils aged five and any pupils under or over that age whom it is expedient to educate with pupils of that age”) is completely different for summer born children.

It starts a whole year earlier than any other child, can involve two rounds of stressful applications instead of one, reduces the statutory number of school preferences that parents of all other children have (since parents can only apply to schools where their ‘request‘ for Reception class has already been agreed), and CSAge entry to school does not guarantee the same 12 years of education as everyone else.

  • DfE changed its definition of Relevant Age Group without publishing new admissions arrangements

As noted in the first two points above, the DfE deliberately changed definitions in its 2014 Code to help justify forced Year 1 entry to primary school for CSAge summer born children.

But since both (2012 and 2014) Codes also say: “Each relevant age group must have admission arrangements, including an admission number“, where is the requirement for schools to have published admissions arrangements for CSAge summer born children entering Year 1?

There isn’t one.

Instead, parents are being told they must make an “in-year application” for Year 1, with none of the same application rights that parents of other children have when applying for a Reception class place as per the ‘normal’ admissions round.

  • 2014 Code Changes are Not Evidence-Based and Contradict other DfE Policies

On February 22, 2015, the Telegraph reported on new research from the Department for Education, which found: “Just one week off will set a child back in school“.

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, is quoted: “The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research. Today heads across the country have been vindicated – missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil’s life chances.

Now look at the DfE/DoH’s August 31, 2011 ‘Supporting Families in the Foundation Years‘ document:

reception classes will consolidate and extend children’s learning before moving to key stage one… Within the foundation years, the reception year, as children approach the transition to key stage one of the National Curriculum, is particularly crucial

And the April 26, 2012 DfE document ‘Families in the foundation years‘:

Making a good start in the first year of primary school, known as reception class, is critical in enabling children to do well and enjoy their later years at school… a good start in life means that… there is a fair opportunity for all to succeed.

Yet by November 7, 2014, and despite public Ministerial assurances of flexibility, the DfE was writing to parents saying:

The department would agree with the Council that, in general, children should be educated in their normal age group, with the curriculum differentiated as appropriate, and that children should only be educated out of their normal age group in very limited circumstancesThe DfE repeated the phrase “limited circumstances” in its December 2014 SB Advice.

And on February 11, 2015:

Parents are under no duty to send their child to school before compulsory school age. However, they do not have a right to insist on the year group they are admitted to – or to insist that they receive 7 years of primary education… However, children do have an entitlement to receive an education which meets their needs.

Many, many more examples of inconsistent and questionable DfE communication can be read in the Appendix of the Education Committee Written Submission by Michelle Melson and myself, but I will conclude here with a quote from the DfE in the Birmingham Mail’s February 22, 2015 report: ‘Summer baby’ Olivia could miss her entire reception year if school demands she begins in Year 1

DfE: “We changed the school admissions code last year so that it is more flexible for parents of summer-born children, making it easier for them to defer their child’s entry.

The experience and evidence of a 2000+ Facebook group of summer born parents says otherwise, and a brief read of the responses from Local Authorities during the 2014 Code consultation process clearly demonstrates who the DfE made things easier for…

It really wasn’t parents.

Pauline Hull
Author and Journalist
(updated May 6,2015; first published March 31, 2015)


28 Responses to DfE Promised Flexibility but Look what it Chose to Change in the Code

  1. Rachel says:

    DfE: “We changed the school admissions code last year so that it is more flexible for parents of summer-born children, making it easier for them to defer their child’s entry.“
    Easier to ‘defer’ is not what parents want, easier to ‘delay’, yes. But what parents really want is not that it should be easier to ‘delay’, which it is not, but that parents have the ‘right’ to delay until the term after which children turn 5. This decision to delay should lie solely with parents and not numerous admission authorities. To give parents this right is the only way out of this mess. Let parents do what they know to be right for their child. What right does someone who does not even know the child have to make this decision?


  2. Jenny Warrington says:

    This is disgraceful! The DfE should be ashamed. Their admissions code is a shambles and is so blatantly discriminatory against some of the most vulnerable in society – innocent children who just happen to have been born in “the wrong month”. They are literally ruining children’s chances at realising their potential and possibly even their entire futures! How can this possibly be allowed in a so-called democratic society??


  3. Holly Watts says:

    The code is a farce. The changes to the code has made it more confusing, more challenging and more stressful for parents.

    Here the scenario. My son is 4 in June this year, therefore eligible to start in September 2015.
    We want to exercise his right to start school in September 2016 at CSA rather than this year, so do we see the heads at the school we are offered this year (you see, our LEA insisted we put in a school application alongside our application to defer) , and ask that school? And if that head agrees, do we then get an early guarantee at said school in 2016, which would be unfair to next years application?
    Or do we apply in 2016 and tailor our application to suit the heads who we think are onboard with deferral? What if we don’t then get into the school where we may have secured the agreement of a head teacher? Or what if that headteacher then leaves?
    And if we wait till next year, when will our application be processed? It needs to be processed along with the other applicants otherwise all the reception places may be taken but if we don’t know what the head of the school we are ultimately get into, is supportive then what’s the situation.

    Confused? I am.

    This is just one aspect of the code that is flawed. The entire summerborn guidance needs to be rewritten with some degree of sense, clarity and consistency.


  4. Sarah Sudea says:

    The new code is ludicrous. It’s as though the DfE have deliberately muddied the waters in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to knowlingly preserve the postcode lottery that is so unjust.

    Worst of all is the requirement that parents apply for a school place they do not want for a child who will not reach CSA during their first year of school! It beggars belief and leaves me terrified that we might see a push to lower CSA. I refuse to apply before CSA for my second summer born daughter (we had a delay agreed for our first). As far as I’m concerned the onus is on the LA to make the right decision for my daughter when she reaches CSA. Enough of this shameless blackmail.


  5. Paula says:

    Some children may be ready to start school at 4, but others are not. We need more prescriptive guidance from the DfE to let parents decide whether to send their summer-born children to school at age 4 or age 5. Some LEAs allow that with no real problem, whereas others make it near impossible. How is this fair? Stop the postcode lottery and let parents decide what is best for their children.


  6. Helen Harper says:

    This quote from the DfE interests me ‘“Parents are under no duty to send their child to school before compulsory school age. However, they do not have a right to insist on the year group they are admitted to – or to insist that they receive 7 years of primary education’. This completely contradicts a statement from the education secretary that ” missing (referring to time off for a holiday) school can have a lasting effect on a pupils life chances’. This is ridiculous, so it is acceptable to the DfE that our summer born children can miss out their reception year but other children must not miss time off for holidays. I have seen what is taught in reception, if a child was to miss this year, they would be very behind their peers. It’s not the play based start to school I thought it would be. Reading, writing and maths all take place to a higher level than I imagined. My reception aged child ( an autumn born), is able to do basic: maths, reading and writing. She is given nightly homework! My summer born son, due to start reception this september, will struggle with the pace of work and the demands of school life. I see two key changes that need to take place, 1. We need more flexibility for parents to decelerate summer born children who will struggle with this pace and 2. Reception year should be more play based, so that children could start after different terms, ready for more academic work to start in year one or two.


  7. Nick says:

    I’m having to jump through hoops to provide evidence for my 3 1/2 year old to our borough when actually he’s just too young! This a farce because the guidance has muddlied the waters even more. My borough, who haven’t had anyone apply before have got fixated on me proving how my just four year old will be any different to any other just four year old to prove why I should delay. As we are the people who know our child the best, this is ridiculous that we have to do this.


  8. Gem says:

    this really is such a mess, does anyone in government really care about the best interests of the child?


  9. H says:

    There is no flexibility in Birmingham despite this guidance. It’s a blanket no! It’s totally false to suggest that any flex exists a cross the board in fact sadly It seems to be in the minority or areas. This code has only ensured yet another postcode lottery and a load of false hopes. My son fits every single one of the criteria for delay plus medical challenges and the lea say no to delay! At least where I live there is absolutely no recognition or respect for of any such Summer born advise! :-((((


  10. RDutton says:

    The DfE have legislated a subjective code, NOT making it easier for families but actually making it harder. Decisions are being made at local level, resulting in a postcode lottery and decisions often being made on opinions and anecdotal experiences. Children applying for a reception start at CSAge under the SAME admissions code are often given different decisions. How is this fair?

    The DfE needs to amend the code (and soon – before any more damage is done) to allow all children the same right, the right to start school in reception at compulsory school age and remain in that cohort for the remainder of their education.


  11. sad says:

    Complete post code lottery and forcing parents to run the risk of their children missing reception completely. Please just make it law rather than guidance so you don’t have to put your children in the papers to get your situation agreed. A really sad and stressful situation for parents who are trying to do their best for their children backed up by research!!


  12. aziz qamar says:

    The Guidance says children should be educated within their ”normal age group? What is the definition of ”normal age group” ? There isn’t one in primary legislation, only ”relevant age group” which fits perfectly for a summer born child starting at csa in reception class.


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  18. Jeanette Marr says:

    A great article putting together all the issues that parents of summer born children must face. No wonder the admissions systems is such a mess.


  19. birchrm says:

    It should be so simple, children do not have to start school until CSA. Everyone knows that starting school in year 1 is not beneficial to any child, in fact it is downright cruel, so let children start reception class at CSA. Why is something so simple made so damn complicated.


  20. H says:

    The DfE must also be aware that local decision making can NEVER work well. Not only is it totally inevitable this leads to arbitrary and so unfair outcomes but where I live like in so many areas,schools are so over subscribed that we can never know which school will be offered, so if I need the schools agreement for a reception start I would need an agreement form around 10 different schools before I could confidently plan to send my son to a reception place next year. Therefore it’s a totally pointless process and is not worth the paper it’s written on. I am really annoyed that this lack of legislation and non action is leaving vulnerable children to mop up the pieces where education professionals and our government seem happy to fail them 😦


  21. Lucy hunnable says:

    Although we got a yes from our local council the whole process took months of just waiting and being largely ignored, it seems such a shambles. It was a very stressful and anxious time being left hanging on for an answer.


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