Pre-fives in a cash trap
PARENTS who want to defer a child's entry to the first year of primary school are being forced reluctantly by the failures of the admissions system to accept a special educational needs label.
Official figures suggest that from next week around 3,000 children - 5 per cent of the intake - will not be entering P1 because their parents believe that at four and a half they are too young. One in five is likely to be classified as having special needs, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says.
Parents in some authorities say that the only way to claim a paid extra year of nursery is to play the special needs system.
Ministers are currently waiting for a working group to report on possible reforms after concerns surfaced earlier this year during the passage of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act. Proposed amendments were rejected in favour of further investigation.
The SPTC has been campaigning to force authorities to fund places and ensure parents receive better information. Parents have the right to delay a child's entry by a year but it is up to the authorities whether to fund an extra year in nursery.
Ministers insist that councils have had extra cash in their budgets to pay for such places, which works out at more than pound;1,200 a child. Councils question that.
Judith Gillespie, SPTC development manager, said: "Many parents who contacted us were very unhappy at having to go down the special needs route when their child's only problem was that they had been born in January or February. They often had good reason for knowing that the child in question was 'young' from evidence of an older child. Many of the children we heard about were boys, who, research has shown, do mature more slowly."
Mrs Gillespie said parents complained hat some councils told them the only way they could be granted a paid place was to enrol their child in nursery in their official pre-school year so that staff could assess their maturity. Some parents, however, preferred to have their child in a playgroup and use the deferred year as their official nursery entitlement.
"This option was not open to them," she said.
Some authorities such as Midlothian and Inverclyde fund nearly all children who have deferred entry. Donald MacKay, director of education in Midlothian and a working group member, said his authority had granted 66 places this session at a cost of more than pound;70,000, money which has to be found within the pre-school budget.
"Our approach is that if there is any doubt we should defer. But we were worried that we had an item in the budget that was unsustainable. If you have 100 kids seeking deferred entry, it's a serious dent in your budget."
A psychologist currently examines all applications in Midlothian and Mr MacKay accepts the need for an alternative to the special needs route. "Sometimes the motives for deferred entry can be questioned and it can be more to do with childcare arrangements or fashion than anything else."
He added: "There is a need for equity across the country and fresh guidelines and hopefully the working group can find some middle ground. We should be talking about the needs of the child rather than special needs."
Mr MacKay wants greater flexibility in a revised system. "If the kid needs additional time, it's money well spent," he ventured.
But some cases were difficult to agree if parents wanted a deferred entry before a child went to nursery. Authorities could not know how ready children would be two and a half years later. Yet parents felt they were entitled to the choice.
Pre-school inspections, page 3
Leader, page 8