For more than two decades, children in Northern Ireland have started school at a younger age than those in any other European nation. But the days of heading off to school at 4 could soon end, after a long campaign by teachers and parents. Northern Ireland's education minister, John O'Dowd, has agreed to consider introducing more flexibility, allowing parents to defer the start date of their children's schooling.
At present, children who are 4 before 1 July must start school in September, meaning that some are only four years and two months old when they begin full-time education. Elsewhere in Europe, it is common for children to start school at 6 - in France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, for example. In other countries, including high-performing Finland, Poland and Sweden, the starting age is 7.
Dr Liz Fawcett, of campaign group Parents Outloud, has criticised the system in Northern Ireland for forcing children to start school at an "inappropriately early age" and has claimed that this "may well handicap them throughout their school career".
"All we are asking for is a bit of flexibility, allowing parents to defer entry until their child is ready," she said. "Parents who try to keep their child back come up against an official brick wall."
Campaigners have pointed to Scotland, where the youngest children in the year group can remain in a preschool setting for an extra year. Between 7 and 12.5 per cent of Scottish parents in different authorities choose to defer their child's entry year.
Siobhan McQuaid, vice-principal of Holy Family Primary School for four- to 11-year-olds in Belfast, has considerable experience of the issue. "Every year, we have a couple of young-for-year children who really would have benefited from another year in a preschool setting," she said. "They really struggle and, although we try to ensure they don't feel like failures, it's impossible for their self-confidence to remain unaffected."
Roisin Gilheany (pictured, right), a parent from Omagh, fought to defer entry for her son until he was 6. "Most parents who try to get their child's school enrolment deferred simply meet a road block - they're told they can't possibly do it," she said. "The only official way is to homeschool your child for a year. All we want is a little bit of flexibility to ensure that every child has the best possible start."
The move to change the system, which has been in place since 1989, comes after the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank in the UK published its latest round of research on the impact of children being young for their year. It found that younger children were almost twice as likely to be identified as having special needs, and called for a new system of age-adjusted grades to be introduced alongside existing grades to help determine entry to university.
Campaigners in Northern Ireland have been backed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. In a survey, the union found that 76 per cent of its members thought that children should be at least 5 when they started school. The union said that the low starting age not only damaged children's educational attainment but also their psychological welfare.
It pointed to the latest report from the chief inspector of Northern Ireland's Education and Training Inspectorate, published last year. This highlighted data showing that between 2006 and 2011, children with May or June birthdays - the youngest in their year - were 14 per cent more likely to be referred to educational psychologists than the average.
SOONER OR LATER
Compulsory starting age in European countries (April 2013)
4 - Northern Ireland
5 - Cyprus, England, Malta, Scotland, Wales
6 - Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey
7 - Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Sweden
Source: Eurydice at the National Foundation for Educational Research.