Parents in parts of Scotland face bills of up to £3,000 because councils are refusing nursery funding for four-year-old children who postpone starting primary school.

A new survey has revealed that 139 applications for funding were rejected by 14 local authorities in 2019-20. Seven councils approved proportionately fewer applications than in 2018-19 with significant drops in East Renfrewshire and East Lothian.

As a result, parents in these areas must find thousands of pounds to pay for nursery education while parents in the rest of Scotland get funding. This is “unacceptable”, say campaigners, who are urging ministers to ensure funding is available to everyone by the start of the next school year in August 2020.

Anger over postcode lottery of school charges for practical classes

All parents have the right to defer entry to the first year of primary school, if their child is aged four when due to start school. But not all are guaranteed funding to allow their child to continue in nursery.

Children born in January or February are automatically entitled to an additional year of funding for nursery. But families of children born between August and December must apply to their local authority and, if refused, face funding the cost themselves.

One parent told The Ferret that the cost of failing to secure continuing nursery funding can run to thousands of pounds. Catherine Nisbet wanted to defer the start of primary school for her four-year-old boy, Harry, but had her application for nursery funding turned down by East Renfrewshire Council.

Her family now funds a nursery place, leading to an additional cost of just under £230 per month for the rest of the school year. Catherine’s husband, Robert, works additional overtime in order to help pay the bill.

It is really difficult for us to see other kids in the same nursery being funded by the council. Catherine Nisbet, parent

“It is really difficult for us to see other kids in the same nursery being funded by the council,” said Nisbet, “whilst we as a family are having to pay for my son to attend – all because he was born nine days too early for automatic funding.”

All councils were asked under freedom of information law how many applications for nursery funding for deferring primary school they had accepted or rejected for 2019-20. East Renfrewshire rejected 10 of 22 applications, while East Lothian rejected 11 of 19 applications.

Edinburgh rejected 38 applications, Perth and Kinross 16, Aberdeenshire 14, West Lothian 14. Four councils – Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, East Dunbartonshire and Stirling – all rejected seven applications.

Seven councils refused a higher proportion of applications in 2019-20 than in 2018-19. They were East Renfrewshire, East Lothian, Glasgow, Perth and Kinross, Aberdeenshire, North Ayrshire and Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar.

In contrast, 11 councils increased the proportion of funding applications they granted, while 18 granted all applications including Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, Midlothian, Aberdeen, Falkirk and Highland. A total of 1,192 applications were made in 2019-20 and 1,053 were granted.

Councils rejecting nursery funding applications in 2019-20

Local AuthorityApplicationsRejectedCompared to 2018-19
Scotland1192139
Edinburgh9738more accepted
Perth & Kinross8116slightly more rejected
Aberdeenshire5614slightly more rejected
West Lothian6514slightly more accepted
East Lothian1911more rejected
East Renfrewshire2210more rejected
Glasgow887slightly more rejected
North Lanarkshire427more accepted
Stirling217more accepted
East Dunbartonshire207not known
Dundee City473slightly more accepted
Fife413slightly more accepted
North Ayrshire281slightly more rejected
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar61more rejected
Source: council freedom of information responses

The survey was carried out by the Give Them Time campaign, which is seeking universal access to nursery funding for all children who delay going to primary school. Today – 6 November 2019 – is the first anniversary of the launch of its campaign.

The campaign has won a commitment from Scottish ministers to ensure that all children who defer primary school will have access to funding. But it is unclear when that will take effect.

The minister for children, Maree Todd MSP, told the Scottish Parliament on 2 October 2019 that legislation would be introduced to give universal access to funding. But she was criticised by Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, for failing to commit to having funding in place by next August.

“The postcode lottery of funding for children who defer entry is unacceptable, but the truth is local authorities are implementing the law, which in this case is an ass,” Gray said.

“It gives parents the right to decide to defer then allows local authorities to choose whether to fund nursery hours or not. Parliament has clearly instructed SNP ministers to change the law.”

He added: “But they are now dragging their feet on making the change so families who defer next year will benefit. That is frankly ridiculous as it is a small legislative change, but potentially very important for the families involved.”

Patricia Anderson from Give Them Time welcomed the minister’s promise to end “the current postcode and birthdate lottery” of nursery funding. “But many families in Scotland stand to miss out in the coming months, which could cost them almost £3,000 if interim arrangements are not put in place for 2020-21,” she said.

“The ability to exercise a legal right shouldn’t potentially boil down to whether or not you can afford to do so.”

Revealed: multi-level teaching widespread across Scottish schools

Councils stressed that requests for nursery funding for primary school deferrals were considered on an individual basis. “A number of factors are taken into account, including input from parents and carers, nursery staff, and, where appropriate, educational psychologists,” said a spokesperson for East Renfrewshire Council.

“Decisions are then based on the specific educational benefits and wellbeing for each individual child, therefore there is bound to be fluctuation from year to year.”

The council pointed out that the number of requests approved in 2019-20 was the most to have been granted in a single year. In 2019-20 12 of 22 applications were granted, compared to 11 of 12 applications the previous year.

We will be reviewing our guidance on deferred entry to primary school. Spokesperson, East Lothian Council

Applications in East Lothian Council were considered by a professional panel with “appropriate” evidence. “We will be reviewing our guidance on deferred entry to primary school,” said a council spokesperson.

“Our focus is supporting the key aspects of a child’s development and learning. Our nurseries and schools work in conjunction with families to help our children be ready for school.”

The Scottish Government confirmed that it intended to legislate for all children to continue with funded nursery education, if their parents want to defer primary school. “Work is underway with local government representatives to agree the timetable and approach,” said a government spokesperson.

“We will also continue working with local authorities and partners supporting parents and carers making deferral decisions.”

The Ferret reported in October on the “postcode lottery” of additional charges for some practical subjects in secondary schools. We also exposed concerns over the extent of multi-level teaching, where several courses are taught in the same class at once.

This story was updated at 12.45 on 6 November 2019 to add the word “proportionately” in the second paragraph, after discussions with East Renfrewshire Council.

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