I wholeheartedly concur. I am pleased to see from some comments that the Minister has made already that he, too, understands and accepts that point fully.
We must look at the practice in other countries. In the Netherlands, parents have the right to choose whether a child has one or two years at kindergarten. In the USA, study at kindergarten can be delayed to allow social, emotional, intellectual or physical growth. In some German states, all children are required to be assessed by a paediatrician or educational psychologist to check that they are ready for school. I am not suggesting that we implement all those practices, but it is clear that there is a recognition of these issues across a number of countries.
I have referred a number of times to the guidelines entitled “Advice on the admission of summer born children”, in which the Minister is well versed. I find it difficult to disagree with a statement that came from his Department earlier in the year, which stated:
“Our reforms are raising the quality of early years education”.
It stated that there was
“a greater focus on the key skills children need for a good start in life.”
That is what the guidelines entail.
Paragraph 2.17 of the school admissions code states:
“Parents may seek a place for their child outside of their normal age group… In addition, the parents of a summer born child…may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group—to reception rather than year 1.”
It states that authorities must
“make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned”; that they must
“take into account the views of the head teacher”; and that they must inform the parent of their decision and
“set out clearly the reasons for their decision.”
Finally, it sets out that any application must be taken into account as part of the normal process and not be given a lower priority.
Those guidelines are a real step forward, but there is always a but. In this case, the but is not about the guidelines; there are issues with how the process is being operated in practice, there are concerns about the attitudes of a number of councils and there is a feeling among many parents that they are not getting a fair hearing or that the system is operating as postcode lottery.
Let me briefly set out the issues with current practice. First, although there is no statutory barrier to a child being admitted outside their normal age cohort, there is no right to insist or to appeal. Although the guidelines state that the rationale must be set out, they do not confer any extra rights. Secondly, some authorities allow delayed entry into education but then insist that the child begins in year 1, rather than in reception, thus removing all the hoped for benefit of starting a year later. Thirdly, some authorities, as I pointed out when describing the case in my constituency, allow a child to defer entry at primary level but give no guarantee that the child will remain in that cohort post-primary school. Finally, there are any number of similar problems for the parents of premature and pre-term babies. Some local authorities take no account of prematurity or the due date.
The Education Committee noted in a report earlier this year that the number of cases where children were being delayed and then admitted into year 1 rather than into reception had increased and that there was an increase in the number of contentious cases.
Tonight, I ask the Minister for minor tweaks that I think would have a substantial impact on the lives of many children. I hope that those tweaks will address the issues that I have described. I know that the Minister has agreed to a review, so I ask him to look at revising the guidelines in three ways. First, I ask that the due date, rather than the birth date, of premature children be used in the definition or interpretation of compulsory school age. Secondly, I ask him to consider giving the parents of summer-born children an automatic right to defer, given that parents have the best feeling for when their children should enter education, with a similar provision for the parents of premature children. Finally,
I ask him to ensure that once a deferral has been agreed, the child stays in the same educational cohort throughout their educational career.
If the Minister feels that that is a “perfect world”, that he cannot necessarily agree to all those suggestions, and that perhaps one would be a step too far—although I do not think they are—then surely the default position must be that the onus is placed on the council to prove why a request should not be granted. I hope the Minister will consider the three tweaks, which I regard as relatively minor. Like supporters of the “Summer Born” and “Too Much, Too Soon” campaigns, I have been hugely encouraged by the Minister’s interest in this issue. Tonight—or this morning—we have the chance, through those tweaks, to change many children’s lives for the better. I hope the Minister will agree, in his comments this morning, to look at those tweaks and to revise the guidelines accordingly. We have the chance to make a change that will be of benefit to so many children.