Northern Ireland

School starting age: NI minister delays plan for legal changes

Pre-school child
Image caption Legislation to defer the compulsory school starting age in exceptional circumstances has been delayed by Northern Ireland's Department for Education

A proposal to introduce flexibility in the age at which children start primary school in Northern Ireland has been postponed by the education minister.

John O'Dowd had planned to introduce new legislation that would give parents more control over when their children began their primary school education.

However, he has now said there is not enough time to pass the legislation before the next assembly elections.

Campaigners who lobbied for the change have criticised Mr O'Dowd's "U-turn".

'Well advanced'

They include the campaign group, ParentsOutLoud, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) education union.

Mark Langhammer of ATL said: "This move by the minister beggars belief. We were told by his department a few months ago that the preparatory work on the legislation was well advanced.

"Officials have also detailed to us the key legislative changes which the department believes need to be made - and those appear to be few in number and very straightforward."

"This simple and highly popular measure would have benefited thousands of children and improved educational outcomes," Mr Langhammer added.

Image caption Education Minister John O'Dowd said he had to prioritise other legislation after December's Stormont House Agreement

At present in Northern Ireland, children who reach the age of four on or between 1 September and 1 July in the same school year, have to start school at the beginning of the next school year.

Children whose birthdays fall between 2 July and 31 August in the same calendar year have to start school in the September following their fifth birthday.

Brenda Pierse, whose son Emmet is due to celebrate his fourth birthday in June, said he is not ready to start school.

Emmet's birthday falls two weeks before the 1 July cut-off point, meaning he will have to begin primary school in September.

Mrs Pierse said her son is already struggled at the pre-school centre he is attending. She said Emmet would benefit far more from a further year in a pre-school setting, as opposed to starting formal school.

She added that she was "bitterly disappointed" that the proposed legislation has been postponed.

In a statement, the minister said: "Given the limited assembly scrutiny time available, it is not likely this legislation could be passed in the current assembly mandate.

"I have had to prioritise legislation being brought forward focusing on the commitments I have given at Stormont House and to my assembly colleagues.

"I understand there will be some disappointment, however, the current consultation provides an important starting point and will help inform the interim guidance which I intend to publish in the coming months," Mr O'Dowd added.

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