I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond on securing the debate, and on choosing such an apposite time of the day in which to have it. I also congratulate him on his very effective campaigning on this issue, both for his constituents—Hugh Hunter and his parents—and the other families he referred to. I congratulate him on the fight he has put up on their behalf, and on his campaign nationally on this very important issue. It is timely, as it allows me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on summer-born children, and our intention to amend the school admissions code to ensure that summer-born children do not miss out on an important year of their education and schooling.
The statutory school admissions code currently requires admission authorities to provide for the admission to school of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. A child does not reach compulsory school age until on or after their fifth birthday. No parent, therefore, is obliged to send their child to school before that age is reached. Most parents are happy for their child to begin school at the age of four, but as we know, children develop at different rates, particularly in the early years. Some parents will therefore feel that their child is simply not ready to start school before compulsory school age. To allow for this, the admissions code makes it clear that parents can request that their child attend part time, or that their entry be delayed, until they reach compulsory school age.
Where parents of a summer-born child want that child to start school at the age of five, as the law allows them to, they will start school at the point when their peers are moving up from the reception class to year 1. If they want their child to be admitted to the reception class at this point, they must currently request that they be admitted outside of their normal age group. The admissions code requires the admission authority to then make a decision on the age group the child should be admitted to, based on the circumstances of the case and their best interests. In making that decision, the admission authority is required to take into account the views of the headteacher of the school—as my hon. Friend explained—as they are best placed to advise on the age group at their school in which the child’s needs can best be met. The code also makes clear that admission authorities must take into account the wishes of parents, alongside other information relating to the child’s academic, social and emotional development.
This, however, is where problems seem to arise at a local level. The decision on what age group the child should be admitted to often seems to be problematic, with the parents and admission authority failing to agree on what is in the best interests of the child. I am concerned about the number of cases in which it appears that the wishes of parents are not being respected and children are being admitted to year 1, rather than the reception class, and are therefore missing out on the essential teaching of reading and arithmetic which takes place in the reception class.
We have always made it clear that there are no statutory barriers to admitting summer-born children to reception class at the age of five. In July 2013, we published non-statutory advice to help admission authorities and parents understand the statutory framework within which decisions must be made, and to remove the misunderstandings that appeared to get in the way of admission authorities agreeing to parental requests. For example, it clarified that a school’s funding would not be affected if they admitted a child out of their normal age group, and this advice seemed to be successful at dispelling such misunderstandings, but unfortunately it did not result in a reduction in the number of problematic cases, or the number of parents whose wishes were overruled.
That is why last year we amended the admissions code to provide greater clarity about how such decisions should be made, and to improve transparency for parents. The code now makes it clear that the decision must be made in the best interests of the child. It also requires the admission authority to take account of the views of the headteacher of the school concerned, as they are best placed to advise on the age group at their school. The code requires the admission authority to publish the process for requesting admission out of the normal age group, and to set out the reasons for its decision in each case for the parents concerned. It also makes it clear that admission authorities should take into account the wishes of parents, alongside other information relating to the child’s development.
In spite of these changes and the additional non-statutory advice we published alongside them, I am concerned about the number of cases in which it appears that children are still being admitted to year 1 against their parents’ wishes and are, as a consequence, missing out on that important reception year at school. I am also concerned that some children who are admitted outside of their normal year group are later expected to miss a year and move up against their wishes to join the other children of the same age range—a point referred to by my hon. Friend.
We have therefore decided it is necessary to amend the admissions code further to ensure that summer-born children can be admitted to reception at the age of five, if this is what their parents wish, and to ensure that those children are able to remain with that cohort as they progress through school. We have already begun the work necessary to implement the change. We will conduct a full public consultation in due course and, subject to parliamentary approval, we will introduce these further changes to ensure that no child is forced to start school before they are ready.
Admission authorities may have been reluctant to agree to parental requests because they felt it would open the floodgates—that large numbers of parents of summer-born children would want them to be admitted outside their normal age group—and that, as a consequence, the admission system would become impossible to manage. I do not believe this to be true. The reception year of school is the final part of the early years foundation stage, and we know that most parents are happy for their child to go to school at this point, confident that they are ready for the challenge. We believe that only a small proportion of parents of summer-born children wish them to be admitted to reception at the age of five—for example, children born in the late summer months or born prematurely. On that point—the first of the three my hon. Friend made—I will further consider whether we can make changes in relation to the due date versus the birth date of prematurely born children.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I hope he is happy to learn that we are taking action to address his concerns on the admission of summer-born children.
Question put and agreed to.