Schools attacked for 'blackmailing' parents

Schools have been told to stop aggressively recruiting four-year- olds into reception classes.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, last week admitted on BBC's Panorama that the "genuine problem" felt by parents who claim they are "blackmailed" into allowing their children to start reception classes at four or risk losing their place at five.

Mr Blunkett said tough new guidelines on schools admissions procedures would stop schools deploying such tactics. Early- years campaigners blame schools for "hoovering-up" four-year-olds into reception classes and causing the widespread closure of voluntary playgroups.

The newly-published interim guidelines on schools admissions state that as compulsory school age does not begin until the term of a child's fifth birthday, parents may wish to defer their child's entry until then. However, the guidelines do not prevent schools denying a place to a parent who wants a deferred entry. Instead they merely suggest schools "consider" allowing parents to hold a child back in "the interests of furthering parental preference".

Alison Richards, a former teacher, claims she was told that unless her son Jamie, who turned three on August 30, started a school nursery there would be no reception place for him. Furthermore, she was told, Jamie must begin reception next year - a day after his fourth birthday - or again risk losing his place.

Mrs Richards, who lives in Enfield, north London, had wanted Jamie to attend a local playgroup for another year and start school when he turned five, which would have made him the eldest, rather than the youngest, in his year. However, she was told that if she persisted Jamie would have to be assessed at home by an educational psychologist. She conceded and Jamie now attends the Worcesters primary school's attached nursery part-time. She said: "I feel I have been hoodwinked into sending my child to school too soon. Where is this parental choice? You either do what they say or lose your place."

Enfield admits it will not guarantee a place unless a child either attends a school-attached nursery or begins at four. A spokeswoman said: "There is a lot of sympathy for Mrs Richards, but someone who has turned down a school nursery place can't be expected to keep their reception place later."

Under the Government's Early Years Partnerships, parents have a legal right to three terms of pre-school nursery education, which can be in a school nursery, reception class, voluntary or private nursery. Councils must make parents aware of all their options.

Jean Ensing, president of the British Association for Early childhood Education said the guidelines were "not enough" and that Mrs Richards' case highlighted growing pressure and confusion faced by parents.

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