The best age to start school? Maybe it's written in the stars

9th September 2011 at 01:00
Edinburgh's new strategy mixes flexibility with intransigence

My birthday is 8 January. It's the same birthday as Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey and David Bowie, but it doesn't mean I can sing. Anyone with the misfortune to have heard me on the karaoke stage can testify to this.

When you are born does not predetermine if you can sing, if you can go to the toilet on your own and if you are mature enough for primary classrooms (or, maybe worse, the playground).

But with compulsory education, a line has to be drawn somewhere and starting school at five is the norm in Scotland that generally goes unchallenged. Not any more.

The number of parents seeking deferred entry to primary for their children has grown by a staggering 56 per cent in the past 10 years, rising from 2,165 in 2001 to 3,371 this year and the trend is continuing to rise.

If I was a five-year-old living in Edinburgh, my parents would have the choice of letting me stay on at nursery school for an extra year - thanks to my being born in January. That's because Edinburgh has a policy that deferral of starting P1 is automatic on request for five-year-olds born in January or February, but discretionary for those born between the start of September and the end of December. Then it becomes the council's decision.

Councils fear many parents are now taking a gamble by deciding that their children (particularly boys) will benefit from being among the oldest in the class, so deferment for a year is an advantage worth having.

If there is genuine evidence that boys are so behind girls in maturity, then why do we make everyone start school at the same time? Should boys not start a year later as a rule? Surely this would cause more complications than the current situation, and deliver unwelcome, unintended consequences - yet that is the logical extension of the deferment argument.

I suspect the truth is that people - and that includes five-year-olds - are individuals and must mature at different speeds, depending on many factors other than just their age or their gender. Schools need to have a policy, but that policy needs to have flexibility to take account of variations between individuals.

Edinburgh's policy appears to pull off the balancing act of combining flexibility with intransigence. It's like building trams - but only to Haymarket and not the city centre.

The council might as well say Capricorns can defer, but not Sagittarians.

I might be a Capricorn like Elvis, but I still can't sing. Astrology, like birth dates is all hokum - as the discovery of Eris in 2005 and reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet proved.

If Mars eclipsed your Venus and Saturn overshadowed Uranus, what influence did Eris have over Neptune all those past years? Maybe they know in the City of Edinburgh Council?

Brian Monteith, Political commentator.

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