By Lynn McNair

As I write, April is almost here.  April is the time when some parents apply for an automatic deferral or a deferred place for their child.  There are two procedures which parents have a right to if they do not wish their child to start school. The first is an automatic deferral but the second option, the discretionary deferral, is more complex. For an automatic deferral, parents of children with January and February birthdays can apply to have school entry delayed and a nursery placement is subsequently provided for another year, as summarised below:

If your child is of school age but has not reached the age by the start of the new school session, usually mid-August, their school place can be delayed until the start of the next school year. However, only children with January and February birthdays are entitled to receive a continued funding place at either a [state nursery] or a partner nursery should their parents request this (Name of Council, 2013:2). 

Parents whose child’s birthday falls between mid-August and December have to apply for their child’s place to be delayed through discretionary deferral. Parents are given the following information:

Continued funding for a nursery place for children whose birthday falls between August and December is not an entitlement and it is at the discretion of the child’s resident local authority. This is the case when a child has received just one year of pre-school funding. Applications for delayed entry have reduced considerably over the past two years and interestingly most children of this are successfully supported in Primary One (Name of Council, 2013).

Despite this claim, discretionary deferral requests by parents of four–year–olds have markedly risen nationally. This trend is reflected locally (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Source: (Small, 2011)

Some will have their decision granted but most will not.  Fundamentally, the main reason parents choose not to send their child to school is based on the age of their child.

We need to return to the nineteenth century to discover that the 1870 Education Act made education compulsory in Scotland from the age of five years. The 1870 Education Act stands as the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education in Scotland.  A driving force behind the Act was a perceived need for Scotland to remain competitive in the world by being at the forefront of manufacture and improvement.  It could be, simply, argued that the reason children began their formal education at five years of age was for economic reasons.

In the same period, the practices of child psychology, developmental linguistics and anthropometry (the study of human body measurements) provided pictures of what children were like and how they should be expected to look at certain stages. From this standardised notion of childhood a variety of social, political and educational ideological reforms were woven. The expectation was that, by primary school age, all children would arrive at a similar stage of development at the same time and would have developed a necessary repertoire of skills and abilities to begin formal education.

The school starting age remains the same today as it did in the 19th century. With a single annual intake in August, children in Scotland can begin primary school anywhere between 4.5 years and 5.5 years. The demarcation of age is, therefore, the sole determinant of ability and/or performance. In many parts of the world the statutory requirement for starting school is much later, with most starting formal education at 6.

Notably, children who start school later than five years do academically better than children who start school younger.  There may be many reasons for this but one significant observation must be that children must be socially and emotionally mature enough to fulfill school requirements. The school child is expected to achieve a fixed standard of ‘behaving intelligently’ on school entry.

My argument is that not all children develop at the same pace, and developmental capacity rather than chronological age should be the marker for children starting school. In support of this shift away from age criteria, the Gillick-competence ruling (1985) emphasised that it is not chronological age at all which determines competence amongst children, but sufficient understanding and intelligence to comprehend what is being proposed.

‘Harming children is like damaging seed corn but still expecting rich future harvests’ (Alderson, 2016)