Flexibility to the school starting age

The Department of Education is developing a Bill that would introduce some “flexibility” to the school starting age in Northern Ireland, which has one of the lowest school starting ages in Europe.

In February 2021, then Education Minister Peter Weir MLA told the Northern Ireland Assembly that he had instructed officials to make legislation addressing the flexibility of the school starting age the Department’s key legislative priority.

While new Education Minister Michelle McIlveen MLA has confirmed her commitment to moving the policy forward, at her first appearance before the Assembly as Education Minister, she appeared to temper expectations that the legislation could be concluded before the end of the current mandate.

“I am mindful that we are heading towards the end of the mandate and that progression may be hindered by factors that are outside my control, so I do not want to raise expectations. However, I am committed to moving this policy forward,” she said.

If progressed, the new legislation will not alter the current regime in Northern Ireland but instead only offer flexibility around the school starting age in exceptional circumstances, for example, for premature babies whose birthdays are late in the school year.

Attempts to introduce similar legislation took place in 2014, when then Education Minister John O’Dowd MLA launched a consultation, however, proximity to the end of the mandate then was deemed too close for further progress.

Currently, parents do not have the option of applying to defer their child’s entry to primary school in Northern Ireland. Guidelines by the Education Authority, issued in 2016, state that parents must make their own arrangements for educating their child and have a legal duty to ensure that their child receives a full-time education suitable to the child’s “age, ability, aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise”.

Importantly, a child who does not to take up a P1 place is not entitled to any funded pre-school education and parents are responsible for any educational costs incurred as a result of their child’s delayed entry. For those who choose to admit their child to the school system later, a place depends on school capacity and children who are given a place are admitted into their chronological age group.

Children in Northern Ireland can begin school from as young as four years and two months, depending on when their birthday falls once they’ve reached the age of four. The compulsory school age was set out in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) order 1989, ensuring that all children receive at least 12 years of schooling.

However, Northern Ireland’s compulsory starting age is one of the lowest across Europe and it has been suggested that the youngest aged school starters, i.e., those who are summer born, may have poorer educational and social outcomes, which can persist over the course of their education.

In England, Scotland, and Wales most pupils enter reception classes at four but the compulsory starting age for primary school is five years old. Six is the common starting age in most countries across Europe.

A research paper developed to inform the Northern Ireland Assembly on the policy and practice of school starting age points to a consensus across many countries that early years provision of an active, play-based approach, encouraging self-management and independence among young children is appropriate from the age of three.

While some countries have higher compulsory starting ages, age six in the Republic of Ireland and age seven in Finland, for example, most have structured pre-school provision.

The research paper points to existing evidence that suggests that there is “no compelling educational rationale for a statutory school age of four or five” and argues against assumptions that a later start at school appears to hold back children’s progress.

“There is also little evidence to indicate that an early start in school can make up for any deficiencies in the home learning environment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” research suggests.

Instead, strong evidence indicates a later school starting age is beneficial. While most researcher acknowledge a complexity in identifying an optimum age for starting school, most findings do suggest considerable benefits for a delayed school entry.

Research done by academics from the University of Stirling in 2021 on the school starting age identified several advantages to a later school starting age, including:

  • higher scoring on standardised exams both in primary and secondary school across different countries and improved test scores within classrooms;
  • positive effects within the secondary schooling context including an increase in contributions to high school leadership, greater uptake in secondary students’ application for disability identification, assistance with mental health, and support from special education assistance programs;
  • research with boys found that 18-year-olds who started school later are less likely to have poor mental health compared to their earlier-beginning peers; and
  • a one-year increase in school starting age led to significantly improved mental health results and further demonstrated that these positive effects appear to persist into later childhood.

For Northern Ireland, the relative age disadvantage of the youngest children in their year group at school tending to perform at a lower level than their older classmates, particularly in reading, writing and maths, is thought to be greatest for children born in May and June.

“The research suggests that this ‘birthdate effect’ is most pronounced during pre-school and primary school, and that the effect gradually decreases throughout post-primary school. Nonetheless, it is thought to remain significant at GCSE, A level and possibly during higher education,” the report states.

“The research suggests that this ‘birthdate effect’ is most pronounced during pre-school and primary school, and that the effect gradually decreases throughout post-primary school. Nonetheless, it is thought to remain significant at GCSE, A level and possibly during higher education.”

This finding is not new. In 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a working paper looking at the impact of date of birth on educational outcomes in England. Amongst the findings were that younger children, on average, perform worse than their older peers in test scores at age 7,11,14 and 16. Additionally, the difference in test scores at age 16 potentially has labour market consequences because it affects the number of pupils who stay on beyond compulsory schooling. The research also found that the impact of month of birth persists into higher education decisions.

Social and emotional wellbeing

While the reasons behind differing educational outcomes may vary, research indicates that many children aged four may not be well equipped to deal with a number of features of attending school such as separation from parents, possessions and surroundings; getting to know strangers; and adopting to new routines and rules.

“It has been suggested that the age-related disadvantages of young-for-year children can lead to lower self-esteem, which may in turn have further impacts on behaviour and achievement,” the report states.

There is also evidence to suggest that a disproportionately high percentage of relatively young children in the school year are referred for special educational needs and that “many of them appear to be misdiagnosed”.

A study in Northern Ireland showed that youngest children in a school year appear to be substantially overrepresented in referrals to a psychology service and that primary school teachers in Northern Ireland were more likely to identify behaviour problems in children with May and June birthdays and this group’s attainment in literacy was poorer than average.

Premature birth

The development of a Bill to provide flexibility around the school starting age will, in particular, reference premature birth. The report points to evidence which suggests that children born prematurely and multiple birth children can be adversely affected by starting school at four. One study, by Pettinger et al. showed that even children born just three weeks premature, who consequently fall into an earlier school year, are more likely to experience ‘significant setbacks’ in their education.

In February 2021, then Education Minister Weir stressed that the legislation was not intended to open the debate on compulsory school starting age but rather to give flexibility for parents to defer their children starting primary school for a year if they feel it will be beneficial.

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