Please read our new blog for Upstart Scotland summarising our recent survery findings.
I’ve spent the last two and a half years campaigning for a change in legislation which will be made law in the next two months. I should be ecstatic but I’m not.
The Scottish Government’s Dec 7th2020 announcement will see all children who share the same legal right to defer their primary one start in Scotland – any child who hasn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date in August – soon have the same automatic entitlement to a further year of funded early learning and childcare (ELC). This was the key aim of our Give Them Time campaign but it won’t be available to all before August 2023 and therein lies the rub.
Every day through the Deferral Support Scotland Facebook group we help concerned parents of mid-August to 31 Dec borns (the cohort currently at the mercy of their local authority for this continued funding) who find themselves disempowered from making a decision in the best interests of their child due to the process of applying for this funding in their local authority area.
For academic year 2020-2021, our research showed there were 1635 applications for this funding across all council areas in Scotland of which 84 were refused. Twenty out of thirty-two local authorities funded 100% of these requests with Stirling Council funding the fewest – only 42%.
Parents are worried about how to write a winning funding application (it feels like a competition for a quota of spaces and the criteria are so subjective and varied by council area that it’s hard to know how best to convince the hidden decision makers – usually they have never met the child). Parents are put in the position of listing their child’s deficits in order to argue their case for deferral ELC funding whilst also knowing that refused funding could lead to their child being turfed out of their current council nursery (12 councils don’t permit parents to self-fund in a council nursery if the council refuses to provide this – see table in point 5).
Parents in our recent survey described their experiences of applying to their local authority for this funding as, “horrendous”, “stressful”, “difficult”, “distressing”, “worrying”, “bureaucratic” and that they felt their views on their own child were often “dismissed”.
The five councils which will participate in an automatic funding pilot scheme from 2021-2022 are: Angus, Argyll & Bute, Falkirk, Scottish Borders and Shetland Islands. We are delighted that parents in these authorities can breathe a sigh of relief knowing with certainty that their child’s continued nursery place is guaranteed next year – particularly in light of the current closure of all ELC settings during this second national lockdown in less than a year. However, serious questions need to be asked about the selection of these areas. Firstly, Falkirk adopted a policy of automatically funding such requests of its own accord in 2018 so isn’t it disingenuous to consider it part of a pilot? Also, responses from all 32 councils to our Freedom of Information requests show that these five areas have each had a 100% rate of granting all requests in the last two years. Wouldn’t it have been better to learn from the challenges that arose in council areas where a lower percentage of requests are usually approved? And perhaps a city to show the obstacles faced there?
Don’t get me wrong, the 2023 law change and interim pilot are very, very welcome but sadly they won’t help the majority of families going through the process of deferring their mid-Aug to Dec born now, more than 50% of whom in recent years have had a December birthday and miss out on automatic funding by only days or a few weeks (including children who were born prematurely). And with the Covid-19 pandemic having closed nursery settings for five months last year and who knows for how long this time round, it’s an even harsher blow for those whose children will have had minimal time there if they have to go to school in August instead of deferring.
I sincerely hope the second year of the pilot in 2022-2023 sees more of these issues being addressed. The 2021-2022 scheme is good, but not good enough. Many questions remain but one in particular endures: have councils’ continued funding decisions ever been based solely on a child’s best interests or on nursery capacity and cost?
Co-founder, Give Them Time Campaign
I loved that film with Gwyneth Paltrow in the late nineties. The concept was great: how what happens in just a few seconds can change a life. Our paths rarely hinge on such occurrences yet every one of us can no doubt identify a few such instances or decisions which have altered our life’s course.
In my son’s case, it wasn’t a window of a few seconds that made the difference but one of two weeks: his early September birthday meant we only qualified to have the legal right to defer him by a mere fourteen days, which, when compared to the entire 6.5 month window to choose p1 deferral for your child in Scotland* feels like a hair’s breadth and yet we believe it will have seismic positive consequences for him.
He’s currently in his deferred year at nursery and after the anxiety – and quite frankly humiliation – of having to apply to the council for continued funding by listing his “deficits” and having our decision scrutinised by professionals who had never met him, his further year at the same council nursery is being funded at the local authority’s expense.
Like most parents, we wanted the continuity of care to be provided at the same nursery setting during his deferral year as he is very settled there. However, if our council had refused to fund it, we’re lucky that we would have been able to finance it at a private nursery ourselves. The unfairness that that is only a true choice if you can afford it burns inside me though as I’ve seen first hand the positive impact deferral can have as we deferred our eldest and know this is right for our third child as well.
Our son is almost halfway through his deferral year now and every single day I am grateful for this time. He is already more confident, independent and is moving towards being academically ready for school as well as developing the attitudes and dispositions which will enable him to flourish there. Some examples include now being less stubborn, being more flexible/open to change, eating a wider variety of foods and having improved language and comprehension skills.
The nursery nativity play last month was a joy to watch as he sang, danced and waved comfortably to me from the stage while happily staying where he was. This is huge progress compared to the previous year’s show where he cowered in the key worker’s lap completely overwhelmed by the scenario.
There are still bad days but as time passes I am conscious that there are fewer of them. He recently point blank refused to wear shoes to nursery – can you imagine if I’d had to carry him to the line at school and pass him to a teacher to deal with along with the 24 other kids in the class? I tighten inside at the thought of it. We’ve also started having conversations about school now when it wasn’t even on his radar a few months ago. Positive conversations about looking forward to it, wearing a uniform, going to the out-of-school club with his brothers etc. I can actually visualise him doing all these things excitedly now rather than having them foisted upon him against his will and before he was ready.
I know exactly what missing the deferral train would have meant for my child: tears, resistance, tantrums, confusion, lashing out, meetings with the school about various concerns and loss of my son’s happy and carefree personality. Lack of academic progress would have been the least of my worries although I know that that would have been a consequence too – there’s no way he was ready for phonics or doing homework last August and I feel well-placed to comment on this as our middle child recently completed p1 so I know what’s expected.
Not every parent’s decision to defer will have been as clear cut as ours in terms of how sure we were that our son was not ready, but I believe that parents know what’s best for their child when it comes to when they are best placed to #thrivenotcope in school.
I’m so glad our son caught that train.
*All children whose fifth birthday falls after the school commencement date in August and the last day in February have a legal right to defer their primary one start till the following August in Scotland. This is legislated for in section 32, sub-section 3 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.
From the beginning of our campaign we have heard views on deferral from a wide range of people including parents, academics and politicians.
However, the blog below highlights deferral from a different perspective: through the eyes of someone who has been deferred.
In 2016 I submitted an application to Aberdeenshire Council to defer my December born daughter from starting school that summer until 2017. I was initially refused and met with point blank refusal by the Education Department. I was told that my daughter must start school at four-and-a-half years old and because she had no developmental or physical issues that I would not be able to appeal this decision. However, they were wrong. I did appeal and I was successful.
After much research I realised that I was not asking permission to defer my daughter’s school entry. You do not need permission to defer your child. I was requesting additional funding for a nursery placement for an extra year. This completely changed my strategy. I was not legally obliged to start my child in school before the August after she turned five years old.
My first priority was my daughter. I removed her from her five-day per week nursery class and swiftly enrolled her back to her old playgroup at two sessions per week, which we initially funded. The change in my daughter was immediate.
I could very easily notice the difference between her and her previous peers when she first started playgroup in 2014. The difference was stark and very obvious in terms of maturity. She lacked confidence and did not always want to join in with activities, be seen or noticed and felt self-conscious. She also did not enjoy being in groups of more than two or three children, as noticed by the Playgroup Leader. She was not bonding with her peers. When she moved up with these children to nursery it became even more apparent that she was not ready for a more formal learning setting and it was a horrendous experience. She became withdrawn and weepy. Begging not to go to nursery. The effect on her was so extreme that I am so grateful that I made the decision to pull her out of nursery and put her back to playgroup.
This was the best decision I could have made. Having gone back to playgroup with a new set of younger peers, she thrived. Her confidence was blooming and she was finally forming friendships and bonded with these new children. I believed that this demonstrated that she had found her ‘peer level’ and I documented this and reported within my appeal that I was of the firm view that it would be very detrimental for her mental health and emotional health to be removed from this group of children and their age group and that she should stay with them and move onto nNursery with them. The Playgroup Leader wrote a letter to support this, and I also attached letters of support from my local MP and health visitor.
I argued that it would be a huge disadvantage for my daughter to be cut off from her peers as she would definitely be deferred from starting school until August 2017 as was my decision. Therefore, to deny her a funded place at nursery would be to deny her any access to her peer group with whom she will be starting school, where she would miss out on the bonding and friendship forming stage of her development with them. It would also deny her the opportunity to grow more confident and to have that extra year to adjust to a more formal learning environment in her own time. I argued this would have a huge, detrimental effect on her emotional and mental health and that Aberdeenshire Council would be held accountable.
My daughter secured her extra year at nursery and I did not even have to attend an appeal panel. I made the right decision and do not regret in any way pulling her out of nursery and moving her back down to playgroup.
This a plea from one parent to another: can we please stop calling kids “bright”?
This term is often used when a child (usually a young one) isn’t excelling at something e.g. social skills, emotional self-regulation, attention span etc – “He’s shy” or “She gets upset easily” or “He just can’t sit still but he’s really bright”. I fully understand the motivation behind saying it – it’s a defence mechanism – but it is used without consideration of what the opposite means and it’s very existence necessitates the existence of an opposite to define itself against. Would you feel comfortable describing a child as “not bright”? I wouldn’t.
I’ve seen this word used in discussions about children being deferred. I’m not trying to shame people for doing so but I feel the same way about it as I feel when I hear the phrase “holding them back” – both make my toes curl. It upsets me because it signifies how much of a mindset shift we need in our culture in order to change inaccurate views of children’s development and I believe this comes from and continues to be exacerbated by 150 years of having a particularly early school starting age in the UK.
The use of such language also concerns me as I am the parent of a child who is “not bright” in this sense of the word. Nobody has ever described my child as such and it would be insensitive for anyone to do so. However, people seem oblivious to the fact that by describing some children as bright, they are equally implying that some children are not. I think this needs to change.
Let me explain – my child has a speech and language delay. They are wonderful and special and funny and perfect but it hurts a little every time I hear descriptions of other children being “bright” as it doesn’t recognise my child’s unique talents and potential. I think most people would consider it socially unacceptable to describe a child as “not very bright” but I think we need to question and rethink what we mean when we describe a child as “bright”.
“Brightness” is a social construct which through custom and history we have become indoctrinated to believe that it means the ability to read, write and use numbers proficiently and to excel in the narrow curriculum that our school system places such high stakes on. However, as Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. We are terrified of our children not being “bright” as we fear it will affect their life chances in our increasingly meritocratic society yet, ironically, we don’t even know what the future holds, particularly with the imminent arrival of the artificial intelligence revolution.
Every time a child is called “bright” it perpetuates the myth that what is learnt in school and valued as attainment is the be all and end all of what matters in life and is the ultimate definition of “intelligence”.
This is despite research showing that we are moving away from a knowledge economy and that we don’t know 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 never mind what “knowledge” we can teach our kids now to prepare them for the jobs of the future.
The arts and social sciences which have been belittled and undervalued for many years are the studies which will provide the creative thinkers, problem solvers and those with the understanding of how people behave which we will need for our not so distant future economies to thrive. Anything that can be done by a robot soon will be.
Yet being able to write your name and count to twenty before you start school at 4 or 5 continues to be mistakenly worn as a badge of honour by many parents and seen as a guarantee that their child will become a rocket scientist scientist.
These seemingly logical but deeply misguided views are actually fairly useless as predictors of future attainment and wellbeing as well as a more concerning reflection of our obsession with the earlier the better: that the three Rs are the hallmarks of educational success and the epitome of intellect. This widely held view completely misunderstands that these are the means to an end and not an end in themselves. They are the carpenter’s tools but the skill and imagination to use them for a particular purpose are his/her own.
The robots are coming so anything that can be memorised and reproduced (reading, writing and counting included) will soon be done by the very gadgets that were the stuff of futuristic fantasy in many a movie from my childhood.
We need to be teaching children the skills and capacities that make us human and which C3PO can only poorly mimic: social skills, emotional intelligence, problem solving, creativity and collaboration.
Einstein didn’t speak till he was four and hated school. My child is a diamond whose potential I refuse to have defined by studies which predict the life outcomes of five-year-olds based on a labour market that very shortly won’t exist.
I know that not every child can become as rich and successful as Rhianna but was her path marked out by an assessment of her vocabulary at age five or her ability to write her name in kindergarten? Does anyone know (or care) what she got in her high school exams? We need to change our attitudes, the language we use and our school system in order for ALL our children to shine bright.
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.
You can read our guest blog for the independent think tank, Reform Scotland, on their website at this link:
Questions of a similar nature have been agonised over through the ions of history; questions whereby the answer leads one way or the other to two different routes, each with their unknown pathways and destinations.
And yet this particular question need not exist. It exists as parents, and some staff, grapple with the enormity of ‘sending’ very young, often very immature, children to school – that is school defined in the eyes of much of the populace as “Big School” with its attendant structure, uniform, and three Rs. In many, if not most, cases the definition is built upon first hand experience of several decades ago…and sadly it is not unheard of still to witness small, energetic children being admonished with ‘just wait till you get to big school….’ No, the question need not arise if ‘Early Years’ was merged into one, as indeed Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence acknowledges with its levels. …’early’ spanning age three through Primary one, and first level from P2 and beyond. If we operated a kindergarten system much of the inevitable formality would be alleviated, transition would be eased and, most importantly, children would be enabled to learn at their appropriate developmental stage in a relevant manner.
I am delighted to see the expansion of what is often referred to as ‘play- based learning’ in primary one and two classes, and there are many dedicated, qualified, conscientious teachers and practitioners chipping away at past regimes to achieve this for children. I welcome this – what I prefer to think of as a more active and creative living and learning base for children – and fervently hope that funding and training support its growth.
But we are not there yet…at least not universally, so the question remains ‘to defer or not to defer?’
My answer is unequivocally ‘yes’ – but to state that without giving reason is perhaps not fair, so here is why I think it so vitally important. In an early years setting or nursery school the ratio of adult to child is better than in school which immediately means there is a greater chance of your child being spoken with and played with in adult company – therefore enhancing their communication and social skills. Early years have environments laid out to encourage movement from children, provoke curiosity and support individual interests and maturation stages. Timetables and strict curriculums do not exist and children can be immersed in continuous exploration experiencing a multitude of scenarios and developing skills that they will carry with them into their later years. – skills such as independence, confidence, being organised and understanding their contribution is as important as the next person’s.
A quality early years setting will spend at least as much time outside as it does inside, letting children see the workings of their world as they play physically, in role, and with imagination. Outings can be spontaneous, literacy and numeracy fostered in day to day life, and little people nurtured as unique and valued. To date schools seem unable to overcome the practicalities of such an approach.
In the same vein that parents may concern themselves that a friend’s child may sleep all night, sit up, eat, walk, and talk before their own so they gradually accept that children do get there in their own time. So it is with social and cognitive maturation. Some children are very physical and may yield paintbrushes, chalks and pencils with skill – or not – as the case may be; some will listen well to stories and poems perhaps memorising and reciting in full while others cannot sit still for 30 seconds. Some children will separate happily from parent or carer, others weep long into a morning until they feel loved and secure in a new environment. But you know what? They almost always get there in the end!
So if you have a child where your instinct is to defer, then do so…..an extra year in an early years setting makes a huge difference, and you will have a child better able to meet the challenges and fun of the next step of their education.
If you are interested in further reading around this subject Upstart Scotland has collated various articles evidencing educational and neuro-scientific research as to why it is important to get it right. If you wish to learn more about the principles upon which quality early years practice is founded read about Friedrich Froebel – credited with being the ‘Father of Kindergarten’ and whose beliefs and approach still stand strong today. If you need first hand reassurance about the value of deferral I am Head of a kindergarten and have lost count of the many children whom I have deferred and had the privilege of watching the resulting positive outcomes. I am also a mother who wishes she had had the opportunity to defer a December born son, and lastly I am a grandmother with two out of three grandchildren (in Scotland) who deferred and benefited enormously from doing so…the third had a March birthday!
So, for any parent asking the question ‘To defer or not to defer’, my answer is always DEFER!
By Alison Hawkins, Headteacher, Wester Coates Nursery School
(if quoting from this blog, please ensure 100% accuracy and attribute the author)
Being a mum can be a lonely place at times. You always worry, ‘Is my child okay?’ or ‘Am I doing the right thing?’. Sometimes you feel that whatever decision you make will be the wrong one. These were my initial thoughts when my husband and I began the deferral process for our child. You could even say, I often buried my head in the sand as if the issue would resolve itself without a battle. It was a nice thought but not our reality. However, the ‘Give Them Time’campaign has given me the courage, encouragement and passion to talk about deferral and share with others my experience in the hope it can offer what the campaign has given me.
The early days
When I found out I was pregnant my husband and I were over the moon. We talked from the beginning about sending our child to school at 5.5 because we were having a January baby. It wasn’t a long conversation or an argument, we just agreed with the other’s feelings. We didn’t even know if the baby would be healthy. In fact, that was our biggest concern then. After an easy pregnancy (as if there is such a thing!), I gave birth at the end of December instead of January. I was really pleased to have a Christmas baby and my sister was home too. Perfect! However, it was not until my child reached nursery that I realised what this meant. We would potentially have to send them to school at 4.5.
During our child’s time at nursery we moved from one region to another. Would deferral be met with the same negativity as it was in our original area? The answer was indeed yes. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost in a form I couldn’t and didn’t know how to answer about additional needs, which my child didn’t have or limited communication. I was ushered into a room to see how serious we were about ‘deferral’. I felt so lost, frustrated, isolated with no one who understood to talk with about it. I was anxious that my child would have to sit at a desk aged four when they should be playing. Why the big rush?
Why we wanted to defer
In the end, their place at nursery was taken away and school looked like the only option. I had lots of professional parents wondering why we didn’t want to send our child to school. They would say ‘My child started at 4.5 and they are getting on fine’ and I am sure they were. For me though, something just didn’t feel right, and my husband felt it too. I was often told your child is ‘smart and will cope with the work’. It’s arrogant but that wasn’t my worry. It was simple things like sitting in a seat, going to the toilet independently, listening or sitting to do homework. I knew our child was smart and I didn’t need a test to tell me that. I had spent the last four years with this wee person and knew that they were academically capable, but would they be ready for the classroom? Primary teachers have a hard-enough job as it is without dealing with behaviour that is more suited to a nursery setting.
We thought we didn’t have a choice
We thought school was the only option. I cried so much. This was not what we wanted for our child. Why could no one see? I felt desolate and cried to my husband. That’s when we looked at the law and discovered we had a legal right to defer. I was confused and worried I was breaking the law but my husband reassured me that even though our child didn’t have a place at a state nursery, we could send them to a private one.
Silence and misinformation
Communication from the local authority had become non-existent. In fact, it had stopped. However, when I managed to make contact, we were told that if we sent our child to a private nursery, they would be placed on the home schooling register so that they didn’t fall off the Council’s radar. This made me worried that what we were doing was falling fowl of the law. I have nothing against home schooling but this was not our choice. Why couldn’t deferral be reflected more accurately in their records? Would they try to force our child to start primary two a year down the line? Couldn’t they see that I didn’t want our child’s education to suffer, I wanted our child to prosper? I wept down the phone. ‘My child is not being home schooled. We are sending our child to a private nursery. We are not asking for funding. What is the problem?’. I wasn’t asking for funding – I never had. In hindsight, maybe we should have but I had long accepted that prevailing attitudes about deferral and the current economic climate meant we would not stand a chance.
My husband was an invaluable source of support. He wrote a well-articulated letter that night which stated the law, asked for our child to be taken off the home schooling list and explained that they would be going to a private nursery for a year before starting primary one. We could only afford four days with our savings and we were lucky to have our parents to help a bit with childcare too. I know that not everyone is as lucky with this level of support, but we were determined to make it work. We had enough money until the January, but the private nursery encouraged us to look at a salary sacrifice scheme which also helped us afford it. I am grateful for all their encouragement and support. I don’t think they will ever understand my gratitude towards them.
You are not alone
After the ups and downs of last year, I was introduced to this campaign by a friend. It was such a relief to realise that we were never alone, that other parents were experiencing issues deferring their child too. I felt liberated, I wasn’t that difficult parent when talking to other parents in the ‘Give Them Time’campaign. There were others in a similar situation. Just to have that sense of release was wonderful. To hear about others’ struggles and hardship was a comfort, selfishly. To meet and speak to other parents in a similar position has been invaluable and often a great source of support. However, bigger than the campaign for me was the realisation in myself. It was profound. My decisions for my child are right quite a lot, particularly with deferral. Sometimes all you need is a wee bit of hope, a big bit of courage and another wee bit of encouragement when it comes to your child. You are not alone when it comes to deferral and it was the ‘Give Them Time’ campaign that gave me this. It is wonderful to share this with others and I hope the campaign gives others what it has given me. To parents out there, you are not alone and it’s okay to want your child to more than cope at school but to thrive.
My son was born in November. I spoke to my son’s nursery teacher and the manager of the nursery several times before I was required to register him at his local primary school by the end of January.
Why We Wanted to Defer
Before my son was even three-years-old, my husband and I had discussed deferment to school. This was for a number of reasons but we were not convinced he would cope at age four. However, we kept an open mind and decided to discuss this not only with his nursery but other professionals/ workers involved in my son’s life at that time. Everyone was supportive of our view in the November/ December prior to registering him at school.
In January I met with the head teacher of the local primary school. He instantly empathised with my view of deferment and agreed that as a parent I should do what I believed was best for my son. The head teacher was very supportive and provided me with a leaflet to complete in order to register that I was deferring my son. This leaflet provided details of the deferment process and required me to complete my son’s personal details along with my own. There was no opportunity at this point to give reasons for deferment.
The information leaflet advised that someone from the Education Department would contact me to discuss my views and reasons for deferment. The Nursery also echoed this.
Two Months Later
In March I had received no communication or even receipt/ acknowledgement of my deferment application. The Nursery Manager advised that an official from the Education Department had contacted her, that she had completed a form and that she had shared a view of support in our decision to defer.
I enquired to the Nursery again in April in respect of when I would receive some communication from the Council but the Manager was unclear and advised that there had been a delay in the process due to the bad winter weather.
At the end of April I received a letter on a Saturday morning from the Head of Education advising me that my application for deferment had been rejected and that it was the Department’s view that my son was ready for primary one. He copied this letter to the Nursery and the Head Teacher of the local primary school and advised me to proceed in contacting them to discuss my son’s transition to school. The letter stated that a panel meeting was held and that this was where the decision was made.
I was shocked that the process was over without any contact or communication with me. No one had asked why I was deferring my son.
I wrote a letter of response to the Head of Education at the end of April highlighting that no one had contacted me to ask my view. I highlighted that the process outlined in the deferment leaflet for the local authority had not been followed. I also made clear that my son would not be attending school for the following term.
By June I still had not received any correspondence or acknowledgement for this letter. In the meantime I contacted my local councillor who was initially interested and had advised that there were problems with communication within the Council and agreed to follow this up for me. I have never heard from her again.
How We Were Let Down
I submitted a Freedom of Information Request and Subject Access Request for information recorded on my son but also data recorded by the Council over the last five years on deferment processes. Information received from the Subject Access Request showed that a Deferment Form had been completed and the section required to outline why the deferment application had been made was blank. My husband and I had never seen this form before and no one had ever asked us to complete this form. Yet this form was the reason that the deferment application was rejected – because there was no supporting information. I had written a 10-page document in preparation for attending a panel/meeting or any discussion about the reasons for deferment. These reasons related to Getting it Right for Every Child and the SHANARRI indicators, which form part of an assessment for a child.
In June I contacted the Council to enquire about any response from the Head of Education. I was told that a response had been sent out to me. During the conversation with this Council employee, I was advised by her that I should seek legal advice as not sending my son to school when he was registered may be tantamount to breaking the law. This made me feel really concerned and I began looking at options for legal support. However, at the same time I had initiated some discussion within the Upstart Scotland and Upstart Glasgow Facebook groups and had been clearly advised by over fifty people that I had a legal right to defer my child as he would not be age five by the school commencement date.
Later that same day, the council employee emailed me the response from the Head of Education. This letter categorically stated that all processes had been followed correctly and ignored everything else I had written in the letter.
What Happened When I Complained
I submitted a complaint in June to ask a number of questions about the process and to complain about my experience, particularly the lack of involvement we, the parents, had had in the process.
The response to this complaint letter was received at the end of June, which advised that I was given the wrong deferment information leaflet and that all processes had been followed. They advised that it is the nursery’s responsibility to communicate information to me from the Council and for them to communicate back to the Council also. The letter stated that parents are not involved in the panel discussions and that given that my son had no additional support needs and that no supporting information had been submitted, he was not viewed as a priority for extra funding. They stated that since my son had good communication and language skills, had no health problems and was happy, safe and secure as well as having a best friend, that he was deemed suitable to attend school. They advised that there was no need to consult further with a parent.
Ultimately they blame the nursery for the poor communication with only one acknowledgement in my complaint being upheld in that they do not send any acknowledgements to alert the sender that they have received their letter.
I had contacted the local MSP, the Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, and John Swinney, Education Minister. I am now receiving support from my local MSP but this was after several contacts to him and him attending the Give Them Time Campaign launch where he realised the extent of my concern in relation to deferment processes.
In the End
The outcome of this experience (which lasted six months) is a feeling of being completely failed by the local council. This is an emotional and exhausting process leaving me with little confidence or faith in the system. My son will remain in private nursery for a further year with the full payment of fees being paid by ourselves. This will have substantial impact financially on us.
I have a real concern about what this process means for parents who cannot afford to pay the private nursery fees. This means parents who cannot afford the fees are forced to send a child to school against their will ultimately. Thankfully, there is now a collective campaign of parents raising the issues of how parents are treated by local government officials . I truly hope that Give Them Time can make a difference and that no other parents have to go through what we did.
The parent who wrote this blog wishes to remain anonymous.
It’s not just a case of, “There’s no time like the present”. We genuinely believe the issues this campaign raises need to be resolved now before it becomes even harder to do so down the line. This guest blog by Give Them Time for Upstart Scotland explains why:
Children in Scotland can start school from four-and-a-half years old. For many this is too young as they develop at different rates. This video shows the effects of trying to formally educate children who aren’t developmentally ready.
When I was due my first child, the doctor recommended an induced labour and I was booked into hospital for this on hogmanay. Apart from my desperation for him to arrive (a mix of a maternal longing to meet him and being sick of the hassles that had accompanied the pregnancy), I was genuinely afraid of having the first baby of the new year in Scotland and reporters trying to take my photo – no amount of free nappies would have granted them my permission!
Not once did I think about deferral.
And yet, despite the delay to the induction and his eventual arrival at 6.07am on 2nd January, I had no idea at the time how fortunate I had been that my son was born at the start of the new calendar year rather than at the end of the previous one. For in Scotland, parents who want to exercise their legal right to defer a four-year-old to start school a year later, Jan and Feb born children are entitled to an automatically funded extra year of nursery whereas the other four year olds’ (mid-Aug to Dec borns) parents have to apply to their local authority for this and it is not guaranteed.
This article is part of a much longer chain of events but it focuses on the misinformation that prevented us from deferring our December-born son in 2013.
When filling his School Application Form in December 2012, we thought he would be ready for school as his language was excellent. By the time our serious concerns had developed during 2013, we had forgotten the role Pupil Placement plays, so we wrote about our serious concerns to the Headteacher of the Primary School and Nursery during the summer holiday:
“Our son, **********, is due to start Primary 1 in August. We have had increasing concerns over a long time about his readiness for school and have recently had unprompted comment from qualified people that supports our view. His birthday is December so he is only 4 and his behaviour, level of personal development and motor skills in particular are causing us some worry about his readiness for school. He still often wets himself and his eating is more like a toddler than a schoolchild. This is all in spite of our very best efforts.
“We are concerned that if he starts school so far behind most of his class he will may feel inferior. He often says that he’s not good at things like drawing, and he knows that many of his friends are far ahead of him. We don’t have long-term concerns, we’re sure he’ll progress fine in time, but we’d like to discuss whether it will be in his best interests to start school in August, and if so, what steps can be taken at home and at school to provide him with enough support.
“We would like to speak to the appropriate staff in the school about this. I don’t know whether this would be the headteacher, another senior teacher or his Primary 1 teacher and I would be happy to be guided. I think that any conversation would probably benefit from the input of one of his nursery teachers – he attended the ****** nursery.
“I appreciate the difficulty in trying to arrange this during the holidays. We had been telling ourselves that everything would be fine, but if anything his behaviour has deteriorated, and having confirmation from others makes us sure that we need to address this now.”
On 16 August 2013 we both met with the Headteacher and with the Nursery Principal Teacher. The Headteacher told us the nursery was full. We then offered to pay. She replied that we could apply to defer if we wanted, but that the nursery was full. Purely on the basis of that, we decided to try him in Primary 1 as the least disruptive option. I came home from that meeting and cut the tags off his new school uniform – I’d kept them on, in case we would be returning them.
School did not go well, and most of his story has been documented here: https://www.upstart.scot/unready-at-four-ready-at-seven/ and https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/
By early November, we had decided that the risk of staying in P1 was higher than the risk of removing him back to nursery. However, other parents had casually told us they’d had the chance to defer up until the end of June, but hadn’t, so we couldn’t understand how the nursery had suddenly become full during summer 2013. We therefore opted to find out anonymously whether the nursery was really full.
Here’s the reply on 5.11.13 from customer services to our anonymous email:
“Thanks for emailing pupil placement regarding nursery places, at the moment there are 2 PM places at ******”
Armed with this information, we emailed the Headteacher on 20.11.13:
“The only reason that we didn’t defer ****** in August was that you told us there was no reasonable nursery provision, and we were concerned about the potential social upheaval of taking him away from ****** Primary entirely for a year. But we now think that, on balance, the risk of leaving him to continue is in the long term greater than the risk of deferring”
We also began to wonder how the nursery had spaces in November, when it had been full in August. We sent the following email to Customer Services on 23.11.13 – this time using our own names:
“I have a question about nursery provision at ******* Primary School, that I would prefer to ask of the council rather than the school itself.
“Just before the start of term in August we made an enquiry about enrolling our child in the nursery pre-school year and were told that it was full. However, I have since heard that there are at least two afternoon spaces available.
“I’d be grateful if you could tell me if the nursery was full at the start of term and, if so, whether and when places have become available due to people leaving.”
Unfortunately, we did not receive a reply until after meeting with the Headteacher on 26.11.13. The reply, received on 27.11.13 (after the Headteacher had had the opportunity to apprise them of the below conversation on 26.11.13), stated:
“At the start of Session 2013/14 all places were allocated at ******** Primary School Nursery Class. Places do become available during the year due to places being given up. Presently we have places available in the afternoon.”
We met with the Headteacher on 26.11.13, during which meeting she again stated that the nursery was full. My husband replied that she currently had 2 free afternoon spaces. There was a very long pause, after which she replied: “I’ll have to look into that, then”. I have handwritten notes of this, taken during the meeting. My biggest regret in life is not covertly recording this conversation: my husband had said to me at the last moment before the meeting: “Professionals don’t do that sort of thing.”
We then, unsurprisingly, began to wonder if the nursery had really been full in August, as the Headteacher had told us on 16.08.13, so we submitted a FOI. We received an initial reply on 21.02.14 which stated that, in August, the nursery had had FIVE unallocated spaces. We referred to it here: https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/were-we-lied-to/
We also received a reply, from the Deputy Chief Executive, on 10.04.14:
“In fact there were 59 morning places allocated by 16 August and 34 afternoon places, therefore places were available both morning and afternoon. When you contacted Pupil Placement on 27 November 2013 the position had changed, as is often the case with nursery numbers, and all 60 morning places had been allocated by that date. You were not advised that all these allocations were made in August.”
To summarize thus far:
- The Headteacher told us verbally on 16.08.13 that the nursery was currently definitely full.
- Pupil Placement emailed us (not knowing it was us) on 05.11.13 that there were currently 2 PM places.
- The Headteacher told us verbally on 26.11.13 that the nursery was currently definitely full.
- Pupil Placement emailed us on 27.11.13 (knowing it was us) that the nursery had been full in August but that there were currently spaces. This was, of course, after 26.11.13, when we told the Headteacher we knew there were currently afternoon spaces.
- In an FOI response on 21.02.14, we learned that in August, there had been 5 free places in the nursery.
- The Deputy Chief Executive wrote on 10.04.14 that the nursery had not been full in August and that we had not been told it was full.
We stated to the Council several times that we had been told the nursery was full by the Headteacher:
- On 20.11.13 by the email above to the Headteacher:
“The only reason that we didn’t defer ****** in August was that you told us there was no reasonable nursery provision, and we were concerned about the potential social upheaval of taking him away from ****** Primary entirely for a year. But we now think that, on balance, the risk of leaving him to continue is in the long term greater than the risk of deferring”
2. On 29.11.13 we wrote to the Headteacher and an Education Officer:
“Shortly before the start of term in August we met with Mrs **** and Mrs ****** to discuss our concerns and the possibility of a deferral. While we were completely comfortable with the reassurances given to us about how the school would look after ****** and help him, we would still have wished to defer him had the ****** Primary Nursery not been completely full. On balance we felt that the risks involved in moving him to an entirely new nursery for a year were greater than the risks of enrolling him in P1 at that stage”.
3. . On 19.12.13 we emailed an Education Officer, copying the Headteacher:
“The only reason we did not press the issue of ******’s deferral in August was because we were told that the nursery was full.”
Our repeated assertions that the Headteacher told us the nursery was full were never contradicted by anybody, until:
On 03.03.14 the Deputy Chief Executive wrote to our MSP, who was assisting us. I have reason to believe large parts of this letter were drafted by the Head of Education. The Depute Chief Executive wrote:
“I have noted some points of factual accuracy below.
Your constituents were not informed by the Head Teacher of ****** Primary School or the Council’s Pupil Placement team that a space would not be available for their son should they choose to exercise their right to defer entry into Primary 1”.
Our immediate reaction to this complete volte face, in an informal email to a friend, was:
“Wow. I can’t believe the headteacher is just flat-out lying. I’m fairly sure I can prove she is lying, so I’m sending a complaint to the GTCS tomorrow. I wasn’t sure about doing it, but now I am. She told us, in so many words, that the nursery was full. Twice. I remember well the look of surprise at the November meeting when I told her I’d already checked and there were two places.”
We responded to the Deputy Chief Executive on 22.03.14:
“There is one matter that needs to be urgently addressed, and some others of lesser importance.
I am extremely concerned at the implication that my wife and I gave incorrect information to an MSP, and I cannot let it pass. My wife is a teacher of RME in ***** and I am *********** leading a ***** team. There is an important matter of reputation involved here and therefore I must press you for clarification.
To say that we “were not informed by the Head Teacher of ***** Primary School or the Council’s Pupil Placement team that a space would not be available for their son should they choose to exercise their right to defer entry into Primary 1” is both wrong and insulting.
At a meeting my wife and I had with Mrs ****** on 16 August 2013 she explicitly and unequivocally told me that the nursery was full. This statement was the sole and exclusive reason why we sent our son to school and did not defer his entry.
I was told by ********* on 27 November 2013 that all places had been allocated at the nursery at the start of term, which lends credence to our understanding from the August meeting…
******** (HT) again said the nursery was full in a meeting with my wife and me on 26 November 2013. I had checked prior to the meeting whether there was capacity in the nursery and had been told that there was, so I was able to correct her at the time. It’s highly unlikely Mrs ******* has forgotten this moment.”
The Deputy Chief Executive responded on 10.04.14:
“With regard to your meeting with the Head Teacher of ******** Primary School on 16 August 2013 you state that you were informed by Mrs ***** that the nursery was full. I can confirm that Mrs ****** would not have been in a position to answer that query without reference to Pupil Placement. Mrs ***** made no enquiry regarding allocated places to Pupil Placement immediately prior to or following your meeting with her. There is no record of any communication from you to Pupil Placement regarding nursery places in August: they would have provided you with this information if requested…
“I am satisfied that the Head Teacher did not provide you with any information that was erroneous or that she was not in a position to provide. I am satisfied that the Pupil Placement Team provided you with accurate information at the time of your enquiry on 27 November 2013 and that this does not support the inference you have drawn on nursery place availability for August 2013… You have now completed the Council’s Complaints Procedure.”
Meantime, I spoke with the Health Visitor on 16.04.14. I was incredibly upset about the breach of trust and, when I told her about being misled into thinking the nursery was full, she replied:
“I was told when trying to get another wee girl … I’m not sticking up for them, but I do know that there was another child that I was dealing with, who I wanted to go to nursery and they wasn’t in for nursery, and I did get told they were full… This wasn’t just with the teacher, this was with Pupil Placement as well.”
I begged the Health Visitor to come forward, because her experience being told by Pupil Placement that the nursery was full would corroborate ours. I pointed out that, as NHS staff, she would be safe from bullying by the Council. Regrettably, she wouldn’t agree to do so.
Neither the Headteacher nor the Council has been held accountable in any way for repeatedly misinforming us that the nursery was full, and thus causing our son to begin Primary 1 against our wishes and against his best interests.
Professionals have a duty to report inappropriate behaviour by other professionals – why are many so reluctant to call this out? By not holding colleagues to account, they allow misinformation and potentially damaging behaviour to continue. Silence is a choice, not an omission.
We did complain to GTCS, about this and other matters. Although we provided the above (substantial) evidence to GTCS in our complaint, they did not progress the matter to a Fitness to Teach panel as they did not consider the matter serious enough.
We later received the Council and Headteacher’s evidence to GTCS by Subject Access Request and nowhere in her evidence did the Headteacher state whether or not she told us the nursery was full.
This is troubling because it means that GTCS doesn’t consider misleading parents regarding fundamental information to be an issue worth investigating. Which means Education officials will continue to mislead parents, because they know they won’t be held accountable for it. And that will lead some children to be harmed. But I’ll blog later about the GTCS issues in more detail.
Some lessons I’ve taken from this sorry tale are:
- The Council told us the nursery was full, in order to prevent us from deferring our son.
- Even when other professionals can corroborate what happened, they will usually not stick up for parents against colleagues. Don’t count on them.
- The word of parents is not believed against the word of “professionals”, even when the parents are also professionals. Parental evidence is not given parity to that of Officials.
- You cannot trust council officials – including Headteachers – not to deliberately mislead you, then deny it.
- If you want to be able to prove something was said, you’ll need to audio record it.
- Councils deliberately and repeatedly misinform parents, in order to prevent parents from taking decisions that the Council doesn’t want them to take. Fighting for your children’s rights is difficult enough when you have accurate information. It’s impossible without it.
I’ll blog later about how school staff are directed by Education Officials in what they’re allowed to tell parents, and what they can’t.
There is also a serious conflict of interest because teachers and headteachers have a double professional duty – to act as professionals, but also to act as Council employees. I believe those two duties are often in conflict, as in our case. Again, I’ll blog on these issues later.
I finish with some key questions:
- 1. What else is being done, in this Council and elsewhere, to prevent deferral of Aug-Dec children? I’ve assisted parents from all over Scotland who have been misled about their right to defer their children, including some families have been prevented from obtaining much-needed deferrals. When deferral is denied unreasonably, there is a potential for children to be harmed.
- 2. Professionals have a duty to report inappropriate behaviour by other professionals – why are they often so reluctant to call this out? By failing to do so, they allow misinformation and potentially damaging behaviour to continue.
Councils can’t be trusted to Get It Right For Every Child
Funded nursery must be guaranteed for all four-year-olds who are deferred