Parent's View, Parents Experiences of Deferral

When is Their Peer Group NOT Their Peer Group?

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 She became withdrawn and weepy.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.

Parent's View, Parents Experiences of Deferral

Can parents believe what they are told by schools and councils?

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:

Sir/ Madam,

“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:

  1. 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