Schools: Statutory Starting Age

Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 4 October 2011.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00, 4 October 2011

2. asked the Minister of Education to outline his position on changing the statutory school starting age. (AQO 457/11-15)

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

A key aspect of the draft 0-6 early years strategy is the transition from preschool to the foundation stage of the revised curriculum, which aims to ensure that children are introduced to education in a way and at a pace that takes account of their age and level of maturity. The draft strategy acknowledges the flexibility provided by the foundation stage of the curriculum in providing a range of educational approaches to meet the needs of individual children, who learn at a different pace and in differing ways.

Therefore, although I have no plans to make a change to the school starting age, I will study the comments made and issues raised as part of the early years strategy consultation, including any implications that those might have for the school starting age.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire, as ucht an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his response. Further to the study that he referred to, is he prepared to draw on the well of experience at international level, particularly from the EU, on the matter?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes. I think it is important that we are not insular in many aspects of our life and that we look beyond these shores for inspiration on education and other matters. Substantial studies have been carried out on the school starting age, and we have one of the lowest school starting ages in western Europe. However, as I said, the early years strategy and the consultation responses are still being analysed, and I will take further views on the matter when those strategies have been analysed.

It is not as simple as changing the school starting age. A lot of research work would have to be completed, and the financial implications and those for teacher training and the schools estate, etc, of revising the school starting age, would also have to be considered.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that children here enter the formal education process at too young an age? What steps have been taken to address that issue?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Some research indicates that we are starting our children in formal education too young. Through the foundation stage in our primary schools, we have tried to ensure that the education system meets the needs of the individual child, rather than our children meeting the needs of the education system. Therefore, the foundation course in education is better than what we once had in place. As I said to Mr McGlone, we await the outcome of the early years review and the consultation responses to that. Following that, we will decide on what action, if any, is required on the school starting age. We have to ensure that we are not in danger of sending our children into the preschool programme even younger than we are currently, whether that be in the community and voluntary sector or the nursery school sector. The preschool setting is about encouraging learning through socialisation and play, and we do not want that to become overly formalised to such a degree that we are starting children at the age of three instead of what we do currently.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Is the Minister open to hearing individual cases from parents as to what age their child should start school, as they will be in the best position to know the ability and readiness to begin a formal education?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Current legislation does not allow for any leeway on that. A number of parents have been in contact with the Department to raise that issue and to state that they wish to start their child at school at an appropriate age. However, unless legislation is brought before the Assembly to change the school starting age or to give more parental choice in that matter, circumstances will remain the same. I do not wish to be repetitive, but I think it is best that we await the outcome of the early years review. Following that, we will take decisions on a number of matters that have been raised in relation to that question.

Photo of Sydney Anderson Sydney Anderson DUP

What consideration has the Minister given to the potential impact on nursery school provision if the school starting age were to rise?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

That would certainly have to be taken into consideration. We would have to replan or redraw our schools estate to meet the starting age. It would impact on teacher training and on how we fund our schools estate. It is a complicated equation, although one that, in my view, could be overcome over a period of years. It should, perhaps, be introduced over a period of years, rather than as a blunt instrument. All those aspects, whether they relate to nursery school or primary school provision, would have to be taken into the equation, if such a decision were reached.