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Dr Richard House, senior Lecturer in Education (Early Childhood), University of Winchester and chair, Early Childhood Action (ECA)
Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare
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Dr Richard House would like to see every parent being given the choice of when their summer-born child starts school. Currently it is up to the local authority, which means parents have to battle to get a decision in their favour, as it is decided on a case-by-case basis. Bringing in Government legislation giving parents the choice would be “a welcome step”.
However he feels this would not go far enough in solving the problems with early years education in this country and would like to see all parents being given the right to send their child to school when they are “developmentally ready”.
“I welcome Elizabeth Truss’s commitment to flexibility for summer-borns’ school starting, which is a significant step forward for affected families. But merely voting for flexibility, with its narrow focus on mopping up the current system’s summer-born casualties, doesn’t go nearly far enough - for the root of the problem lies with the historical anachronism (read ‘1870 Education Act’) that is England’s early school starting age.
“A number of factors play into the tragic evidence on England’s woeful literacy deficits, but a much-neglected one is that since the late 1990s, the introduction of quasi-formal learning to children aged four has become institutionalised and, since 2008, statutory (through the EYFS). To introduce young children to quasi-formal literacy learning is to risk putting many of them off the love of literacy (and learning) for life - and the tragic data on England’s literacy malaise is now bearing this out.
“The current overriding imperative is that of ‘making’ children ready for school, rather than making schools into places carefully designed to welcome the rich diversity of young children’s developmental trajectories. This problem is compounded when young children have a yearly curricular framework imposed on them, placing teachers in an impossible position, and going against the ‘learning grain’ of many young children, who - two years too soon - are shoe-horned into a year curriculum that rides roughshod over early diversity, and generates a large tranche of systemic casualties as a result.
“If children were to begin more formal academic learning at age 6 or 7 (as in most global education systems), the age differences affecting summer borns would also have substantially less negative impact.
“All schools need built-in early flexibility, allowing all children the option of starting institutional schooling when they’re developmentally ready. Allowing choice in deferring summer-born children’s school starting is a welcome beginning, but if narrowly implemented within the existing system, it could simply displace inequity to other parts of the system, e.g. with low-income families not being able to afford an extra year out of school. We urgently need an independent root-and-branch review of England’s early learning regime.“
In a recent Westminster parliamentary debate, Elizabeth Truss agreed with many campaigners who have been advocating parental flexibility in terms of summer-borns. However she is not in favour of a legislation change which would give vital support to parents and is still giving local authorities the right to decide the fate of a summer-born child.
She said: “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.”
Currently parents need to apply for permission to their local authority for their summer-born to defer a year. Many parents have been refused permission to start their child in reception at five and have been merely given the option of missing reception altogether and start in Year 1 at five.
Ms Truss announced that the Government would be issuing new guidance on this matter and said: “We felt that earlier guidance was misunderstood and that it was not necessarily clear enough.
“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.”
Ms Truss advocates keeping formal permission with the local authority when she states: “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…What we need to do is to ensure that local authorities are absolutely aware of their responsibilities.”