From the moment my little February baby was born I thought she was exceptional! All parents do don’t they? T was in fact like most little people her age except she started talking in full sentences when she was one, knew most of her letter sounds and numbers up to 20 by 2 and by 3 could tell you the name of any animal or plant in the garden! We didn’t coach or teach her, she just seemed to want to know, so we answered her questions. T loved knowledge, she loved books, asked endless questions about the world around her and she didn’t seem to have a problem holding on to information that even I as a grown up found tricky to remember. My sister gave her the nickname ‘Matilda’ and we counted ourselves very lucky to have such a clever little person to raise.
Now when you have a child like this you find the comments about school start pretty early. “She’s really ready for school!” “Ooh I feel sorry for her teachers!” “I bet you can’t WAIT to send her to school!” The thing was, even though I had a very bright little girl on my hands there were other things she didn’t find so easy as a result. Socialising for example. Whenever we went to birthday parties she’d prefer to hang out and chat with us! Physical challenges, anything involving risk or chance, her busy little brain just over-thought it all and the thought of what might happen if she failed or fell would overwhelm her into opting out. The summer before her 4thbirthday we took the decision to move back to Scotland from England to be closer to family, then her noisy little brother was born. She had to cope with so much change in such a short time; was asking her to be ready to take on the social and emotional challenges of school as the youngest in her cohort too much? How would I explain it to the well-meaning relatives? “Yes but she is SO ready for school!” There were so many factors that led to my ultimate decision to defer her starting school but the best advice I got was from a fellow teacher who said “she’s not going to be any less READY in a year now is she?” The truth is they just get more ready.
I should explain that I’m a primary school teacher, so the decision should have been easy for me right? Yet I still grappled with that worry that lots of parents making the decision to defer have about potentially ‘holding their child back’. I feel that school, particularly the early years has a lot to do with confidence. Those crucial years play a fundamental part in your formation of your own sense of your ability, your understanding of who you are and what you’re good at. Yes we’re all good at different things and yes we have strengths and weaknesses and it’s important for kids to realise this. However, once you get to school, the direction and pace of your accumulation of the types of knowledge and skills we value as a society becomes less self-led the higher you progress up the school. The amount of attention given to being good academically somewhat unfairly outweighs the fact that you’re good at gardening or golf all the way through school, until you ultimately leave school and become the next Charlie Dimmock or Tiger Woods. The question I found myself asking was why would I not give my child an extra year to build the ability or armour to negotiate that world?
As much as we are trying our hardest as a nation to make education more child centred and child led, it can be argued that the children with the most agency, access to risk, collaborative play, independent thinking, self-governed problem solving are in fact our very youngest in nursery. In nursery, if you want to get the scissors and glue out to build a scale representation of the Paw Patrol HQ well you can, maybe you’ll need to work on those social skills and recruit and manage some friends to help you! Maybe the responsive adults around you will recognise your love of engineering and adapt the play environment to enable you to extend your learning and experiences further by creating a engineering inspired role play area? In P5, if you spontaneously decided you needed to do the above, well I think even the most brilliant and responsive teachers would have to manage your expectations and politely ask you to get back to your writing/whatever task they were currently working on. I think my point is, giving your child another year in a good nursery setting is the oppositeof holding them back. It’s giving them more possibilities, not less. Nursery should be the place where you get to test out your amazing ideas, follow your inspirations, learn how to make friends, share, explain your thinking, go deeper into your areas of interest supported by a much higher adult to child ratio than you get in P1. Perhaps the reason having lots of children deferred is so unpopular is that it’s expensive?
I can honestly say that the extra year of learning through play that we were able to give our girl was the best decision I made. Yes she would have ‘coped’ with school a year earlier, but I didn’t want her to just cope, I wanted her to manage and thrive. We’re two terms into her first year in P1 and she is doing great, I look at the pace of her homework and the weekly reading that gets sent home and listen to the endless chatter about friends and the dinner hall and the playground and cannot imagine doing all of that with her a year ago and her being as confident about it as she is now. In her extra year at nursery she went from being a loner to being a leader, she developed in self-awareness, gained buckets of empathy, grew in confidence and taught everyone the names of all the plants in the nursery garden. Now when anyone asks me whether I think they should defer (I get asked a lot being a teacher) my answer is always defer. Your child has nothing to lose and everything to gain.