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.