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2022 marks Northern Ireland’s first intake of flexible school starts

As schools reopen, more than 270 children are deferring their P1 or pre-school place under new legislation which enables young for year and some children who were born prematurely, to start a year later than normal. It is the first time this option has been available to families with children in these categories in Northern Ireland, and parents and campaigners say it’s a historic moment.

Freddie Patterson, now aged 5, lives with his parents, Michael and Paula, and his brother, Arthur (6) in Newtownards.

Freddie Patterson was born on the school age cut-off date of 1st July, making him the youngest for year, and was also born 6 weeks’ premature. He started nursery school aged 3 years and 2 months and found it a “stressful” experience so his parents believed he was not ready to start formal schooling aged 4

As Paula is a P1 teacher and Michael is a special needs lecturer, they have a certain amount of expertise on when a child is ready for school. Having been unsuccessful in keeping him in nursery school for a further year, they decided to seek a Judicial Review.

In July 2021, a High Court judge ruled that the legislation which governed the compulsory school starting age in Northern Ireland was unreasonably inflexible where it was not in a child’s best interests to start at the stipulated age. Following this ruling, the Education Authority decided that Freddie could stay in his nursery school for a further year, starting primary school a year later than normal.

Freddie’s dad, Michael, commented:

“Freddie has got on so well at nursery school for the past year – it’s been a complete contrast to the previous year.

“He’s gone in happily every day and there have been no more tantrums. He was clearly ready for nursery school this time round.

“He’s now really excited about starting P1 at his new primary school. I’m just so relieved he didn’t have to start P1 last September as I believe it would have been a disaster.”

Michael believes that the High Court ruling was crucial, along with the campaign for reform, in persuading the Education Minister to table the new legislation which does allow for some flexibility.

Sophia’s Mother, Susi Reilly, from Newtownabbey believes this legislative victory needs to be celebrated;
“I am thrilled for the parents today who have been spared the stress of starting their child at school before they were ready. It is amazing to see this decision being put back where it belongs with the parents who know their child best. My daughter did not have this option and seven years later we are still dealing with the fall out of the system’s inflexibility.”

Danielle Black, Regional Officer at NEU commented;
“Northern Ireland was the only country in the world where children are required to start formal schooling at the age of 4. This flexible approach was long overdue and there will be many families sighing with relief today as our social media channels flood with back to school pictures. Finally the department have accepted the evidence that a premature start impacts negatively on children’s self-confidence and educational attainment.

“My own child is starting P.1 on the 1st September and it would be heart-breaking if I knew deep down she wasn’t ready for this momentous day. I welcome that parents will not have to fight the system to get what is right for their child.”

Children who would normally have been required to start preschool or Primary one have been able to defer for the year if they meet certain criteria and it is the wish of their parents.

Alison McNulty, CEO of TinyLife has welcomed this legislation and says “This legislation will have a profound impact on the long term outcomes of many of our children born prematurely. In the past these children were doubly disadvantaged by being young for year and developmentally not ready for school. This gives parents the choice of when their child is ready to start school and this will help these children reach the same eductional milestones as their peers.”

The School Start Flexibility NI campaign, started back in 2014 by Parents Outloud with NEU (National Education Union) and a range of other organisations and individual parents, successfully pressed the Minister of Education to adopt a flexible approach to prevent children being forced into school before they were ready. Figures suggest 271 children deferred for September 2022 intake after The School Age Act became law on 27 April 2022.

The NEU says that the change brings NI into line with other educational systems, with the Republic of Ireland, England and Scotland all having flexible approaches to school starts.

In a press release, the organisation said: “NEU believe school start flexibility is an example of exactly the kind of common sense, ‘win win’ policy which the Northern Ireland Executive should be delivering for families.”