Dr Sarah Christie, a Senior Research and Knowledge Exchange Fellow specialising in Parents and Families, reports on the impact on parents of inconsistent local responses to proposed changes in the rules for summerborn children starting school.
In September 2015, The UK Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb released a statement which stated that summer born children in England starting their school lives at compulsory school age (CSA) of 5 would be allowed to start in reception class and stay with that younger cohort throughout their education rather than be forced to enter straight into Year 1 as had previously been the case. He spoke of forthcoming legislative change but urged schools and local authorities to heed his message and ‘act now’.
On that day, thousands of parental hopes were raised for what they felt was a brighter, better educational future for their children.
But for too many, that hope has been short lived
For some lucky ones who, just by chance, happened to live in charmed parts of the country, Nick Gibb’s statement and his associated open letter to parents, schools, local authorities and admission authorities has been the panacea that they had been waiting for. These parents applied for their children to start in reception at CSA and their requests were agreed.
As simply as that, they and their children are looking forward to what they perceive to be right and timely starts to fourteen year school careers. However, the informal nature of the announcement and the legislative void that has persisted since it was released have resulted in a very different outcome for other less fortunate parents. They have found themselves clashing with local authorities and schools who have interpreted Mr Gibb’s urge to ‘act now’ more as a ‘let’s wait and see’ or, worse still, ‘let’s act at some indeterminate point in the future…perhaps’.
Parents are experts
It is easy to understand why so many parents feel so strongly that their child should be able to take the opportunity to benefit from this change in direction. Just a glance at the social media groups dedicated to this summerborn issue reveal that parent members possess an impressive understanding of the nature of the English educational system and what it offers in comparison to alternatives in the wider world of education.
Parent members know the facts that are important to their case: that children in England start school younger than almost all of their European counterparts and for that matter, most of the children around the world. Many also know that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that an early start can, in fact, be detrimental and importantly that missing a year of schooling can lower later achievement. Some parents have also sussed (and balk at) the gradual but persistent formalisation of education at an ever younger age, characterised most recently by the introduction last autumn of the controversial baseline tests for children aged 4. Organised parents can be a formidable power and the main campaigners behind this issue are no exception. A report published by them in 2014 sets out their stall and makes compelling reading.
A postcode lottery with high emotional stakes
Sitting in my car having a good cry. Just received a no from (LA) for my child. When I asked re appeals procedure admissions lady said “there isn’t one, our lawyer has advised us that if you are unhappy with our decision then you have to take us to court
(Parent on Facebook, Feb 2016)
And so the stakes are high. Parents are emotionally invested and that brings the potential for total satisfaction or utter dejection. Some lucky online parents post ‘it’s a YES’ from their chosen school or local authority, meaning ‘it’s a YES’ for their child to have the 14 year formal learning experience which begins at a time that they feel is right. And that is, quite rightly, a huge cause for celebration. How contrastingly painful, though, are the doleful ‘We’ve just received a no *tearful emoticom*’ or the many protracted tales of email battles with local authorities: defiant yet campaign-weary parents with swords drawn against faceless civil servants.
In short, it’s an (un)lucky dip and no power to the people
Localised interpretations of Mr Gibb’s announcement and his intentions mean that hopeful parents are delving into a bewildering lucky dip of possible responses from the relevant decision-making authorities. Take your pick from: ‘a blanket no policy’, ‘a blanket yes policy’, ‘please provide evidence of special educational needs’, ‘apply as usual and then withdraw your application and apply again next year’, ‘don’t apply til the January before CSA’, ‘don’t apply until next year and wait and see what happens but you do realise that your child might get sent straight to year one’.
All these variations and more are emerging from school and authorities who are reading the same government advice document. It seems that, lurking behind the emphasis on basing decisions on the child’s best interests and the emboldened imperatives for the schools and local authorities, there is a procedural power which lies far from the hands of the parents and places their hopes at the mercy of someone who has, most probably, not even met their child.
Mr Gibb, it really is the time to ‘act now’: it’s time for you and the government to clarify your position and your intentions, to expedite the necessary legislation, to ensure that your message is heard loudly and consistently by schools and local authorities and, for the sake of parents and their four year old children, to finally end this riot of unequal opportunities.