Victims of an early start

6th August 1999 at 01:00
Cutbacks that deny a nursery place may hit exam chances of children who have to begin primary too soon.

HUNDREDS OF children who are being cajoled into primary classes before they are ready will be seriously disadvantaged throughout their schooling.

Children - particularly boys - who are born in December, January and February and are aged four and a half when they enter primary are likely to lack maturity and fall behind their peers, who can be up to a year older. The gap can be reflected in Standard grade and Higher performance.

The claim is made by Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who continues to be lobbied by parents as the new school session looms.

Mrs Gillespie will raise the matter next week with Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister. Local authorities are equally anxious to amend nursery legislation in the forthcoming Education Bill to allow councils and parents greater choice.

Authorities believe the proposed duty on them to provide nursery education clashes with the Executive's failure to fund places for deferred children.

Councils are being forced to absorb the costs of funding an extra year of nursery education for parents who decide to defer their child's entry to primary 1.

Aberdeen last year faced a bill of more than pound;200,000 for nearly 190 children. Moray had additional costs of pound;50,000 for 45 children and Edinburgh had to find an extra pound;387,000 for just over 300 children.

Mrs Gillespie blamed the rigidity of Government regulations and ministers' refusal, because of the high costs, to fund a pre-school place for every child. Parents complained they could not get their child into nursery.

Government spending estimates are on year group cohorts and not on actual demand. An estimated 1,600 children are on deferred entry at a cost of more than pound;1,175 per head. The additional cost to the Scottish Executive would be nearly pound;1.9 million if places were funded according to parental wish.

Jim Gibson, education services officer in Moray, said councils were doing their best to provide places in their own nurseries. "The added difficulty comes if there is a partnership centre and we have to pay out pound;1,000 per place," Mr Gibson said.

Authorities were campaigning hard to have the "unbearable burden" overturned.

Mrs Gillespie said younger children were disadvantaged in several ways. With two years of nursery education becoming the norm, children born in the middle of winter would only have four sessions in nursery against six for older children, who would have had two full sessions.

They were therefore having less nursery experience and would be considerably younger. Ironically, she said, authorities often gave priority to deferred children before universal provision was introduced by Labour.

There was clear evidence from research four years ago for the Scottish Examination Board that birthdays had an influence over exam performance in later years, with older pupils doing slightly better. "There is little doubt that age has an effect on school attainment," Christine de Luca, the researcher, advised the board.

Since girls tend to do better than boys at Standard grade, Ms de Luca questioned whether it would be "reasonable to suggest that boys aged four years and six months when eligible to start school would benefit from a further year at nursery stage".

Mrs Gillespie argues that not every child is disadvantaged but the imbalance between boys and girls could be addressed by giving young boys an extra year.

"If the funding provision for nursery school means that some children start school too young and are thereby disadvantaged until beyond Standard grade, then nursery education, far from facilitating children's start at school, is having the completely opposite effect," she maintains.

SUMMER TERM OPT-OUT?

THE solution, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says, is for children who are only entitled to four terms of nursery to forgo the first summer term and begin in the second full year.

Parents would be informed of this and would be told that giving up the summer term would not commit them to deferring their child's entry into primary.

But it would keep open the option of deferred entry and another year of nursery.

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