My children attend a small primary of fewer than a hundred pupils, which has its own nursery. Despite that nursery’s modest roll, it is not unusual for a child to spend an extra year in preschool – either because it’s what their parents want or because the nursery staff deem it to be in the child’s best interests, and the family accept their advice.
I’ve seen parents who have had to come to terms with the recommendation and who have struggled not to be offended and take it as a personal slight. I’ve also seen parents who have pushed for that extra year because they didn’t think it was in their child’s best interests to start school at the age of 4, almost a year younger than the eldest children in the class.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Australia, my brother is wrestling with whether or not to delay my leap-year-born niece’s entry into school.
These are difficult decisions for parents to make – they worry about their child’s friendships suffering if they don’t move into primary with their peers, and the potential for them to become bored if they spend another year in nursery. On the other hand, they question whether the child is mature enough for formal education, and if they will be setting them up to fail by sending them to school.
Parents' right to delay the start of school
Clearly what is best will come down to the individual child and it is important that all parents of children who would start school at the age of 4 – not just those who can afford an additional year of early years education – get to grapple with this tough choice.
In Scotland, though, that is not a given – at the moment only children born in January or February are guaranteed an extra funded year of preschool. The rest are not legally obliged to start school until the August after they turn 5, but whether or not the council pays for extra early years education is at its discretion.
This is what the Give Them Time campaign has been campaigning so hard to change – it wants all children who would be 4 when they start school to have this right.
However, recent research by Give Them Time found that 139 applications for funding for an additional year of nursery education were rejected by 14 local authorities in 2019-20. As a result, if these parents want to put off primary, they are going to have to find thousands of pounds and pay for it out of their own pockets.
But the research tells us that being among the eldest in a class – as opposed to one of the youngest – brings advantages and makes a difference to outcomes.
Research in the US found that children who start school at an older age do better than their younger classmates, not just in the short-term but also in the long-term. It found that the older children in a year group had a better chance of attending college and graduating from an elite institution.
That particular piece of research revealed that even in high-income families there was an achievement gap between children who started school at a young age and siblings who started when they were older.
However, researchers also found that affluent families were more likely to avoid the issue altogether by taking the decision to simply delay sending their child to school.
This is why when the Scottish government acts and makes sure all four-year-olds have the option of an additional year of funded nursery – something it has promised to do – then the input of professionals will be crucial.
Early years workers, nursery nurses, teachers and headteachers will need to ensure all families are aware of this new right and are given the information that demonstrates why they may well be wise to take it up.
Otherwise, the danger is that funding school deferrals will level the playing field for some children but result in others lagging even further behind.