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School Starting Age

Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2013

I am extremely pleased to have secured this debate. It follows from early-day motion 213, which I tabled in June, on the school starting age for summer-born pupils. The timing is particularly apt, given that most four-year-olds start their primary school education this week. A child born on 31 August 2009 will most likely be in the same year group as a child born on 1 September 2008. Indeed, I received information this morning that some three-year-olds—those born between 29 August and 1 September—have started school in an area where school re-started on 29 August.

The early-day motion notes

“the robust and consistent evidence from around the world on birth date effects, which in England shows that summer-born children can suffer long-term disadvantages as a result of England’s inflexible school starting age”.

To expand on such birth date effects, I will briefly refer to the Institute for Fiscal Studies report published in May. The study found that, relative to children born in September, those born in August are 6.4 percentage points less likely to achieve five GCSEs or equivalents at A* to C, and about 2 percentage points less likely to go to university at 18 or 19. It is staggering just how long term the effects appear to be.

Following the Rose review, the previous Government required local authorities to provide a full-time school place for all four-year-olds in the September following their fourth birthday. One could argue that that change tackled one problem faced by summer-borns—that they receive less time in formal education than their peers, which for some has a long-term effect on their school performance.

I argue that any such benefits are cancelled by the impacts on individual children who are simply not ready in their emotional, social and cognitive development to start formal school. A good nursery or pre-school can obviously help with school-readiness in some respects, but certain aspects of an individual child’s development can progress only when that child is ready. By definition, many summer-borns will not be as ready as their older counterparts. Furthermore, an unhappy experience may lead to behavioural problems and a lack of confidence and self-esteem as a child tries to cope within the school setting, and may therefore have further impacts on long-term achievements.

The statutory school starting age remains five. In principle, parents have a choice about which term their child starts school within that time span, but practice may be a little different. For many families, a child starting full-time school reduces the burden of child care costs. It is difficult to imagine that that would not impact on some families’ choices.

Where a parent chooses to defer their child’s entry to school, the child remains entitled to a funded early education place of 15 hours a week for 38 weeks, which prompts the question of the cost of any extra child care needed by working parents. There are also pressures on parents to do what is best for their child. A parent has to be confident and have full information if they are to decide to keep their child in nursery while others start school. Will the school and the local authority make sure that a school place is available part-way through the school year in an over-subscribed school so that parents can exercise their choice about which term their child starts school?

Over the years, I have received representations from across the country about parents who have struggled to be allowed to exercise that choice. I have asked questions and supplied details of cases, but I am not clear what the Department does to support parents experiencing problems in simply trying to have a place held open, so I would be grateful for clarification.

More recently, I have been contacted by parents who want to have the option of their child starting school at the statutory age, but in reception rather than year 1. It is pretty obvious that that makes sense for some children born at one minute to midnight on 31 August, and even more so for a premature baby born at that time. It is easy to extend that line of argument to include more children who would benefit from starting in reception class aged five.

I welcome the discussions between Bliss, parents and the Department for Education on schools admissions policy and that, as a result, new advice was issued in July. I congratulate Bliss on all its work representing families in which premature babies have been born.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to meet the Minister’s officials and Bliss on that point. I want to put on the record my thanks for the fact that, in answer 4 in that advice, the Government specifically refer to premature children who would have been in the lower age group had they been born when they were due. That is a welcome advantage for parents who are having such conversations with local admissions authorities.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I not only congratulate Bliss, but I am grateful that the DFE has taken a big step forward. I particularly welcome the fact that the new advice states:

“There is no statutory barrier to children being admitted outside their normal year group”,

and that

“flexibilities exist for children whose parents do not feel they are ready to begin school”

in the September following the child’s fourth birthday.

The questions and answers provided in the advice on the DFE website are helpful, on the whole, but I particularly want to draw the Minister’s attention to answer 8, which states:

“Parents who are refused a place at a school for which they have applied have the right of appeal to an independent admission appeal panel. They do not have a right of appeal if they have been offered a place and it is not in the year group they would like.”

Parents may make a complaint, but the advice states that they cannot appeal. Surely, there should be a right of appeal. It seems to me that although there may be no statutory barrier to a child being admitted to a particular year group, there is no statutory right. That means that although some authorities work to help and support parents, others can continue to make it extremely difficult for parents to exercise a justified choice.

The other barriers that I have mentioned will also prevail—financial, in relation to child care costs; and parents’ confidence and empowerment in relation to requesting a different time of entry and possibly a different year group. I would be interested to know the Minister’s plans to monitor local authorities’ actions on the new advice, to promote best practice and to make sure that full information is available to parents.

I was contacted late yesterday—I have not had time to check this material, so I will refer to it only briefly—by someone who has looked at several London local education authorities’ admissions policies, of which 49% apparently did not conform to the new advice. I apologise that this is second-hand material, but it needs to be checked. It states:

“Admission Arrangements For…2014/2015—Request to delay entry to school (known as deferred entry). Parents of children below compulsory school age may defer their child’s entry to a Reception class…until later in the school year. However, a Reception class place must be taken up by the start of the summer term. If entry is deferred beyond the summer term, parents will need to reapply for a Year 1 place”.

That just shows that although the DFE has played its part, there must be follow-through if the system is really going to change.

In the case of premature births, I imagine that it will be possible to involve health visitors, as well as pre-schools and nurseries, and to use the new advice to secure a place in reception for a child aged five. I certainly hope that that will be much easier, but of course it will not be so unless all local authorities operate within the new advice, which is really important.

I want to mention one or two case studies. I need not give too many, because there are just so many and they are very similar. In a case of premature birth, a child born at 32 weeks struggled enormously with the transition to mainstream school after their parents’ application to delay entry to reception by a year was rejected by the local education authority. I also have a story of twins. The tragedy is that the parents felt that they had to put their children into the reception class. Sometimes the whole experience is of a totally broken down system. It is only when the children are withdrawn from school that it is accepted that they have to start reception in another school year. I am sure that everyone will agree that the experience of starting school and then being pulled out must be avoided.

Clearly, a lot of proactive work has to be done to ensure that the advice makes a difference. I repeat the question: how will the Department ensure that the questions and answers are promoted to admissions authorities and parents? That information should be available not just to those parents who are seeking information, but to all parents. Furthermore, there is a need to monitor published admissions policies.

I remain concerned about how a parent can succeed in exercising their choice when we are considering a child who is so immature, but not prematurely born, that he or she is not ready to start school until the age of five and then needs to experience a reception year. I want to hear the Minister’s views on this matter. What information does a parent need to supply to the local authority to provide a convincing case?

The advice given in answer 4 is far more open to individual interpretation than the one on premature births. It is quite likely that such a child does not have special educational needs as such—there is often misclassification. It is just that the child is not developmentally ready or mature enough at the age of four. By the age of five, they have simply had one year’s growth and maturity, and they need the experience in a reception class.

Will my hon. Friend extend what she said earlier about the knock-on effects of not getting this right, and of not matching the learning experience to the child’s stage of development later on? Like her, I used to teach older children in the primary sector. The knock-on effects to a child’s confidence are repeated as they get older, with really damaging effects.

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing the case. It can be seen as an issue just for some middle-class parents who perhaps want to get their children to the top of the class. I want to reiterate that that is not the case. Unfortunately, it is about trying to shoehorn individuals into a one-size-fits-all system, and that is the problem. We must all love and make the most of the individual differences of our children both in our families and in our schools.

We must consider whether some of the issues of summer-born children can be overcome with a play-based curriculum and excellent teaching in the reception class, where the needs of individual children are being taken into account. I would like the answer to be yes, but we have changes in the primary curriculum and assessment and testing regimes, which put constraints and pressures on schools and teachers. Even with an excellent teacher, the individual interests of the child may require a start in reception at the age of five. I do not think that such a move would open floodgates because most parents want their children to fit into the system as it is. Not all summer-born children are adversely affected by being the youngest in their year and there will be variations in any effects. It is difficult to see that age-adjusting test results, as proposed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is an entirely valid approach.

Undoubtedly, the early start to formal schooling and the testing regime in this country compound the summer-born problems, which leads me to conclude that, ideally, we need to rethink our approach to the all-important learning settings and experiences for the four to seven-year-olds. The school experience should suit the individual child; the child should not be made to fit the school because of the potential adverse outcomes over their lifetime.

Meanwhile, we have to do the best we can. We must identify the problems and cope with them within the existing system. We must have more flexibility in school starting time, and parents need to be empowered and enabled to make the best choices for their child. Currently, what is in the best interests of the child can be ignored in favour of slotting everybody into an arbitrary 12-month period.

There are so many cases that I could cite, and I am happy to talk about them with the Minister—even those relating to the transfer from primary to secondary school. The whole matter needs to be considered carefully. We must assess the scale of the problem and monitor the impact of the new advice. Having monitored the situation, we must consider whether the schools admission code needs changing in the future.

We also need to consider assessment within the early years foundation stage and how summer-born children are being assessed. This is a huge issue, but my message today is that if parents can demonstrate that they have a strong case that is in the best interests of their children, they should be empowered and enabled to allow their child to start school at the age of five as required, but in reception year.

I will call Alok Sharma now, but let me just say that I will be calling the Minister at 4.20, because she needs to have time to respond to the debate.

I will be brief. Let me first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this incredibly important debate. It is an issue that is not aired or talked about enough, and we need to put it at the top of the agenda when we talk about education.

I want to raise the case of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Slade, who approached me two years ago because they wanted their daughter, Ava, who was born at the end of August, to delay her start to school by a year. I have some sympathy with such a view because my older daughter Isabella is also an August-born child. She is doing absolutely fine at school now, but when she first started, her age did make a difference. If she had started a year later, it would have made a difference, but in a positive way.

As I said, Mr and Mrs Slade approached me two years ago, and I wrote to the Department. The then Minister of State for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), gave me a prompt reply. He said:

“It must be the parent’s choice when their child starts school and the law provides flexibility for parents on this issue.”

That was absolutely great news, but he then went on to explain that the parents had to talk to the school, the head teachers, the governing body and the local authority. That was where Mr and Mrs Slade found the huge difference between the theory and the actual practice of getting a delayed start for their child. They battled for almost two and a half years with Reading borough council, which was not as helpful as it could have been.

Mr and Mrs Slade said to me that the local authority effectively hid behind some of the clauses of the admissions code. They admitted that even if their child started in the year when the local authority wanted her to start, she would cope, but no one wants their child just to cope; they want them to thrive in school, and that is what this debate is about. Parents are best placed to judge how well their child will do in a school setting, which is why we should do more to empower them to make those decisions, obviously in consultation with local authorities and governors.

I welcome the guidance that the Department has issued, and I congratulate the Minister on the work that she is doing. I also back my hon. Friend when she says that we need to monitor the advice that is being given and to see whether local authorities are complying with it. We need to give more information to parents, governors and governing bodies. I was a school governor many years ago and feel that this issue should be built into governor training, to explain to governors how they can help parents who want a delayed start for their offspring.

When the then Minister of State wrote to me in 2011, he stated:

“Ms Slade should also be aware that if her daughter were to be educated out of her chronological age group whilst at primary school, any secondary school which she later moved on to would not be obliged to continue this arrangement.”

We also need to consider that matter. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate and on her campaign, including the early-day motion, on the issue of summer-born children. I absolutely share the concerns that she has raised about the issues affecting those children. In the Department for Education, summer-born children are heavily represented—I was born in July and the Secretary of State was born in August, although we both went to primary school in Scotland, where the cut-off dates are slightly different.

My hon. Friend made a variety of points, encompassing some of the overall issues about the school system and the early-years system, as well as the specific issue of the admissions code. What we are seeking to do with our education reforms is to increase the level of flexibility that head teachers and teachers have—for example, over how they implement the school curriculum—so that children are not pushed through material that they are not yet ready for and so that more care is taken about the individual’s level of capacity at a stage of learning.

We are also trying to remove some of the barriers between early years and school, so that there is not a sudden jump between them but rather a continuum of age-appropriate learning for children. Those changes are also important in ensuring that each child is treated as an individual rather than as part of a block of children who are pushed through the system.

The statutory school admissions code allows for flexibility in school starting dates, as my hon. Friend pointed out. It requires school admission authorities to provide for the admission of children in the September following their fourth birthday, so that the maximum amount of reception education is available to all children. However, children do not reach compulsory school age until after their fifth birthday, and no parent is obliged to send their child to school before then.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, we released new guidance this summer, making it much clearer to schools about where their responsibilities lie and where the responsibilities of local authorities lie. We need to allow some time for that new guidance to filter through and to ensure that all local authorities and schools understand it. Nevertheless, in that guidance we certainly addressed some of the concerns that she has raised today.

What we want to do is to empower parents to be more demanding about how their child’s level of development is reflected in whether they join reception or year 1 when they enter school after reaching the compulsory school age. My hon. Friend made valid points about issues such as child care costs and other children in the family, which will also have an effect on the decision that parents reach, but I do not think that we can impose a solution from Whitehall.

The way to do things is to empower parents and ensure, first, that they have the complaints and appeals procedures at their disposal and, secondly, that the DFE is following up on those procedures. We have a working group on admissions, which is monitoring this issue. As a Department, we will also be monitoring any complaints made by parents, such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) mentioned in his speech, and following up to ensure that our guidance is being adhered to.

At the moment, we do not have data that would demonstrate how many parents of summer-born children request that their child is admitted to the reception class at the age of five, or how many of those requests are granted. That is something that I will look into, to see whether it is possible to get more information to understand what might be the scale of the problem. However, like my hon. Friend, we are concerned about the level of correspondence that we are having on this issue and the level of complaints about it, which is precisely why we issued the new guidance to clarify the situation for schools and local authorities.

The point about flexibility is important, because all children are different. Some children may benefit from entering year 1 as soon as they reach the compulsory school age, while others would benefit from entering reception. It should be the parents who are the primary decision-makers when it comes to deciding which route is most appropriate for their child and which environment will enable their child to thrive.

If someone sends their child to an independent school, it is clearly available to them to decide which year group they go into. When it is really in the best interests of the child, I want that flexibility to apply to all parents, right through to a situation where perhaps there are disadvantages in the background. So I welcome the Minister’s words, but I would just like her to be a little more proactive as well as responsive to the problem.

We are absolutely clear that parents should be able to say to a school, “We want our child, who is aged five, to enter reception”, if they feel that that is in the best interests of their child. That is what we are elucidating in the new guidance that we issued this summer and that is what we will be following up on with local authorities and schools.

One of the reasons why we issued the new guidance is that we felt that earlier guidance was misunderstood and that it was not necessarily clear enough. I also agree with my hon. Friend’s comment earlier about the “floodgates”. Like her, we do not think that the new guidance will open the “floodgates”; we think that it is about schools being responsive to parental needs and that there are not a massive number of complications in doing that. We want schools to be responsive to parental needs. However, only the parents of a limited group of children—those born between April and August—can lawfully delay entry by a full year. It is those children we are talking about in this debate.

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the research evidence on summer-born children. We know that they have lower average attainment than their older peers. The attainment deficit decreases over time as they progress through the key stages, but it persists throughout their schooling. Absolute age is the dominant reason for that but it is not the only reason, and there is a statistically significant effect from the starting age or the length of schooling. That is why we want to give maximum flexibility.

I have mentioned the non-statutory advice that we issued on 29 July. We make it absolutely clear that there is no statutory barrier to children being educated outside of their normal year group and that it is unlawful for an admissions authority to have a blanket policy that children are never admitted outside of their normal age group. We make that very clear in the guidance.

I note from my hon. Friend’s comments that she feels that some of that guidance should be clearer, and that is certainly something we can look at. However, the new guidance is considerably clearer than the earlier guidance. We say that the following factors should be taken into account when making a decision about entry: the impact on the child of entering year 1 without having first attended reception class; whether a prematurely born child would naturally have fallen into the lower age group if they had been born on time; and whether delayed social, emotional or physical development is affecting the child’s readiness for school.

Of course, the guidance has just been issued—no doubt partly due to the campaign by my hon. Friend and her colleagues—and we will need to see how it affects behaviour and the level of complaints that we receive.

I very much welcome the new advice. The Minister will know from a whole spreadsheet of evidence submitted by one of my constituents, Mr Graeme Vousden, that before the new advice was published, local authorities across the country were thwarting the wishes of parents. Subsequent to the publication of the new advice, will she collect evidence to see whether the behaviour of local authorities changes as a result of it?

The Department will certainly want to look at that, to see what the impact of the advice is and whether further advice to local authorities is required. I know that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole may seek a change to the statutory admissions policy itself, but I think that we should look at what the impact of this new advice is.

In general, what we want to do is to encourage flexibility and responsiveness to parental needs. There is a wealth of evidence about the importance of following a specific child’s development. We are trying to encourage that development through more flexibility over pedagogy, based in the early years and in school, so that teachers can adjust teaching practice according to where the child is in terms of their level of development. A combination of empowering parents about deciding which year their child joins school and giving teachers the flexibility to teach in the best interests of the child, rather than jumping through hoops in a particular year, will help to ameliorate the situation.

Such decisions are best made at a local level. We have been clear with local authorities about where their responsibilities lie, and about the fact that we want to see them being flexible and giving the parents the choice for their five-year-old child of joining reception or year 1. Having too much central guidance the other way would be wrong. What we need to do is to ensure that local authorities are absolutely aware of their responsibilities.