When I was due my first child, late in 2011, the doctor recommended an induced labour and I was booked into hospital for this on Hogmanay – 31 December. Apart from my desperation for him to arrive (a mix of a maternal longing to meet him and being sick of the hassles that had accompanied the pregnancy), I was genuinely afraid of having the first baby of the new year in Scotland and reporters trying to take my photo – no amount of free nappies would have granted them my permission!
Not once did I think about school deferral.
And yet, despite the delay to the induction and his eventual arrival at 6.07am on 2 January, I had no idea at the time how fortunate I had been that my son had been born at the start of a new calendar year rather than at the end of an old one. For in Scotland, parents who want to exercise their legal right to defer a 4-year-old to start school a year later are entitled to an automatically-funded extra year of nursery, if their child is born in January or February. However, for parents of the other 4-year-olds (born from mid-August to December) it is not guaranteed – they have to apply to their local authority.
Automatic deferral is a bit like being a VIP guest at a hotel: “I’ll get those bags for you…express check-in has already been completed…let me take you to your room right away”. Usually you just turn up to your child’s catchment school during registration week, fill in a form and tick the deferral box at the bottom. Simple!
On the other hand, applying for a discretionary deferral is like discovering your booking is not on the system after you’ve had difficulty finding your way to the hotel: “When did you make the reservation?...What payment method did you use?…I’m afraid we might not be able to accommodate you.”
Across Scotland – where the school starting age is unusually young – both parents and early years staff’s knowledge of the legal right to defer 4-year-olds born before 1 January is patchy. For those parents lucky enough to have found out about their legal right and who decide to apply for the extra year’s nursery funding, in many local authorities it can be an uncomfortable, drawn-out affair. (And of course there are similar issues around deferrals in other parts of the UK.)
If you apply for the funding, steel yourself for an often protracted process whereby myriad professionals can be involved in deciding whether they agree that you, the parent with the legal right, are indeed making a decision in the best interests of your child.
The deferral system in many local authorities is flawed, as it pits parents against education professionals by simultaneously authorising both parties to make a decision in the best interests of a child.
If a council rejects your application then it’s an expensive blow, and you might not be able to keep your child in the same nursery even if you can afford to pay for it. Yes, believe it or not, after all the assessments, reports, consultations, deliberations and time taken to refuse you the funding, a single sentence in a council policy document already exists to either permit or deny you the ability to retain your child’s place at their current nursery and offer to pay for it. The irony of this cut-and-dried approach is staggering – no consideration of the child’s best interests is needed here it seems yet this upheaval can be seismic for many little ones.
Not all local authorities take such a long-winded and convoluted approach but this shouldn’t be the process in any of them. Educational professionals don’t join the sector to make budget decisions but when it comes to deferral, in some local authorities, this is the position they are effectively being put in by their employer.
I’m lucky that having worked in education, I’m familiar enough with its jargon to challenge the system which purports to be ruling on my child’s best interests while simultaneously questioning my own ability to do so. What about parents who don’t have the same experience of the sector? Will they have the confidence to question the “norm” when they don’t think it’s right for their child? Will they have to be fluent in the jargon of Girfec and CfE early-level outcomes to be taken seriously? Will their gut feeling that their child is just not ready yet be enough against all the paperwork and experts’ opinions? It should be.
I will be eternally grateful that my son was born 30 hours and seven minutes into a new year – he wouldn’t have been ready for school at 4 if he’d arrived before midnight on Hogmanay, and I doubt I’d have known about my legal right to defer him if he had been. The choice to defer should be the parents’ alone, and they shouldn’t have to factor affordability into that decision. Their first and foremost role in their child’s life is to make decisions in their best interests, and they know their child best.
That’s why I believe many local authorities’ practices across Scotland need to change – so that, when it comes to deferral, all children and parents are treated like VIP hotel guests.
Patricia Anderson is founder of the Give Them Time campaign, which launched this week. This piece was originally published as a blog post on the campaign website.