Northern Ireland

John O'Dowd indicates new school age rules likely

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Media captionEducation Minister John O'Dowd said changes were likely

Education Minister John O'Dowd has indicated he is willing to introduce new rules to allow flexibility on the school starting age.

Mr O'Dowd was speaking after a campaign group of parents and teachers addressed the Education Committee at Stormont on Wednesday.

The minister told the BBC his "mindset was to bring a scheme into play".

He said the main issue was not whether there would be a scheme, but exactly what scheme would be introduced.

He warned legislation might be needed, but he expected to make a decision in the coming months on the way ahead.

At age four, Northern Ireland has the lowest statutory age of entry to school in Europe, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The group calling for a more flexible system said the current system works for most children, but they want a degree of flexibility so that parents of children who are not ready to begin school can hold them back.

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey also backed the group's campaign.

"There are a relatively small number of children in Northern Ireland with specific circumstances who should be allowed to defer starting school," he said.

"The education minister should move quickly on this issue and there is no reason for delay."

One of the lobbying group, Julie Thomas, principal of Clandeboye Primary School in Bangor, County Down, said: "Every year, we notice a group of children who we feel are not ready to be in the primary school classroom.

"Usually, those children are young-for-age children who turned four around May and June."

Ms Thomas said some of those younger children were distressed when they came to school and it could take weeks and months for some of them to settle in.

"They really suffer from that detachment from the parent in the morning. Even though we do the revised curriculum that is designed very much for the younger child and of which we are proud, it is still not adequate for these children.

"We should look towards the English and Scottish models and the model for the Republic of Ireland where parents have a say if they feel their child is not ready for this setting.

"If a pre-school practitioner and even our year one practitioners feel the children are not ready, we should be able to defer their entry to start at age five."

Mark Langhammer of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said: "This is an invest-to-save issue. By spending a little bit on a limited number of pre-school places, we would reduce the need for educational psychologist referrals, special educational needs later on and, in fact, in education terms, we believe performance would improve.


Image caption Some parents say there needs to be flexibility about when children start school

"We are not seeking a change of school starting age, we are simply seeking flexibility for some categories of children - those who are younger; adoptive children; multiple birth children and looked after children," he added.

According to NFER, in England, children reach compulsory school age at the start of the school term following their fifth birthday. Most children enter primary school before they reach compulsory age and spend a year in reception class.

In Scotland, the age is five, but many start at four years old because schools have a single intake in September. Local authorities set a cut-off date, usually 1 March, defining the cohort of children eligible to start school at the beginning of the following school year. This means Scottish children do not usually begin school below the age of four years and six months.

In Wales, as in England, children reach compulsory school age at the start of the term following their fifth birthday. However, most children enter school in the September following their fourth birthday and spend a year in reception class.

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