Parents are calling for an end to the postcode lottery that sees some forced to pay thousands of pounds in nursery fees because a few councils refuse funding for four-year-old children who defer the start of primary one.
While 21 councils agreed to all requests for funding for four-year-olds to stay at nursery for an extra year in 2021, freedom of information requests submitted by campaigners showed that 11 local authorities refused 53 of those applications made by parents.
Campaigners said that while “huge improvements” in the number of councils accepting applications in recent years were encouraging and demonstrated the success of parental pressure, they “could not celebrate” while the decision for some parents to defer still came down to the ability to pay.
Every child who will not be five at the start of the school year in August is legally allowed to postpone their start date until the following year. But while those with birthdays in January and February are automatically given funding to remain at nursery, the decision to fund those with birthdays from September to December remains discretionary until 2023.
A total of 1,807 applications for primary school deferral on those grounds were made for the 2021/22 academic year, with some parents citing the impact of lockdown and Covid restrictions on their child’s development as a reason.
Postcode lottery for parents
Under a Scottish Government pilot scheme, five council areas – Angus, Argyll and Bute, Falkirk, Scottish Borders and Shetland Island councils – automatically provided funding last year.
A further five council areas will join the scheme in 2022. Those include Stirling Council, which this year only accepted 12 out of 20 (60 per cent) of requests for funding, the lowest rate in Scotland.
Fife Council, where 56 of 64 requests for funding were granted will also join, along with Aberdeen City, Clackmannanshire and Glasgow City.
But the Give Them Time campaign group says councils do not have to wait. It urged every local authority to change their policy in time for the next academic year to prevent families being forced to send their child to school before they are ready, or face bills of up to £5,000 in nursery fees.
Edinburgh City Council has already opted to do so. However campaigners are particularly concerned about small but “stubborn” numbers of refusals in North Lanarkshire (69 of 81), which has no plans to change their policies until 2023.
While East Dunbartonshire approved 50 out of 52 requests this year and Perth and Kinross 87 out of 90 both councils have historically rejected applications and campaigners say next year offers no guarentees.
They claim that in the worst cases children with autism are being forced to attend school at four before they are able to cope, leading to a traumatic breakdown in the arrangement, which could easily be avoided.
Diane Delaney, spokesperson for the Give them Time campaign, said that the group was “delighted” with the successes it had seen in recent years. But she insisted all parents and their children must be given the same opportunities.
“There’s a lot to feel really positive about here,” she added. “But we can’t celebrate until the situation is equal for parents across Scotland.
“We are not saying every four-year-old should defer. But we are saying that there should be greater flexibility and the decision should not come down to your ability to pay or to provide evidence.”
Delaney, who was refused funding for her own son three years ago in North Lanarkshire and self-funded so he could go to school when he was ready, said claims by councils that primary school was just a “gentle step” due to the increased focus on play-based learning were not accurate.
While staff ratios mean there is one teacher for eight pupils at nursery, in primary this moves to one to 25, which she said was a big adjustment for some younger children. “There is the expectation that they will wear a uniform and line-up to come in,” she added. “It’s a massive jump.”
She applied to defer the start of school because her premature son, who spent eight months in hospital as a baby, was not socially or emotionally ready. But she was refused funding without her input being requested.
A subsequent appeal was unsuccessful and her husband was made redundant two months after they decided to self-fund. “And the experience I had in North Lanarkshire has not changed for the parents we are currently supporting,” she added.
Many of the parents that spoke to The Ferret about decisions to defer over the last couple of years had also been influenced by the impact of the pandemic on their children.
They included Chloe Milne from Fife who had been considering deferring daughter, Robin – who turned five in mid October – before the pandemic hit. She was convinced it was the right thing to do after she missed almost nine months of school nursery time due to restrictions.
“She’s at a brilliant outdoor nursery and it was clear she was very happy there,” she said. “Then Covid happened. It meant there would be no real transition [from nursery to primary] and that for me was the final straw.
“When we applied for the funding, it was granted but it didn’t allow us to use a private setting.”
The school nursery hours offered – 8am-12.40pm – didn’t work for her and her husband who are both working. “So now she is two full days a week at the outdoor nursery and it’s costing us about £5k for the year to have her here,” she added.
“In lots of places funding follows the child [not the nursery setting] and that’s something that Fife could choose to do. It’s something they will have to do in 2023 anyway so why not now?”
Fiona McLachlan’s son, Gabriel, whose birthday is in late November started p1 this year following a deferred entry, which she only found out was possible through the Give them Time campaign.
“When I asked the nursery about my concerns their approach was yes, he was one of the younger ones but he’d be fine. But when Covid struck and he was at home, I just didn’t feel he was ready.”
By May, convinced her son would not cope, she applied although the deadline had been in March, citing the exceptional circumstances of lockdown. But though everyone in Edinburgh who applied before the deadline was approved, she was told she had not applied in time. She appealed and waited.
“That was a horrible process,” she said. “I had sleepless nights. The awful thing was that we’d moved him to the school nursery to make the transition easier but when I was refused I was told I would have to take him out. I offered to pay for it but that wasn’t an option – we were told we had to use a private nursery.”
However she is glad she made the decision to wait as he son is now “delighted” to go to school. “We had the luxury of being able to make that choice but what about people who don’t?” she said.
Other parents, who are currently applying for deferred entry, also called for the process to be made automatic and those in council areas where funding is not guaranteed spoke of the stress involved.
“My son is very young for his age,” said Fiona Nutman from East Renfrewshire, who will have to “fight” for funding because her child was born on Christmas eve rather than his 12 January due date. “So I’ve been drafting my evidence writing down all of these negative things about him. But It’s a horrible thing to do. My friend in Glasgow meanwhile just has to tick a box and fill in a form.”
Sue Palmer, who chairs Upstart, which campaigns for the school age to be raised to seven, pointed out that in 88 per cent of countries children do not start school until they are six.
She added: “While it’s welcome news that the Scottish Government has agreed to grant parents funded deferral for all four-year-olds from 2023, we should be providing play-based learning for all Scottish children until the year they turn seven.
“So it’s inconceivable that – in the face of all the evidence – some councils are still refusing to fund play-based nursery education for four-year-olds. In terms of their long-term physical, social, emotional and cognitive development no four-year-old child benefits from being pushed into school. Scotland needs a serious rethink of its early years educational policy.”
Councils approached by The Ferret said they made decisions in “the best interests of the child” and in line with current Scottish Government guidelines.
A spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said: “From August 2023 all children who defer will automatically be able to access funded early learning and childcare (ELC).
COSLA and the Scottish Government last year agreed a implementation plan, he added, “which will allow councils to understand what effect this change will have on the demand for ELC places and ensure that there is sufficient capacity across Scotland to meet the needs of children and their families”.
A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “Where parents decide deferring a child is in the child’s best interests, local authorities have the power to use their discretion to provide funded ELC, and they should make these decisions based on the wellbeing of the child.”
Read the council responses in full.
Cover image thanks to Black Squid photography.