Nursery Funding (Deferred Entry to Primary School)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-19193, in the name of Iain Gray, on the Give Them Time campaign. I will let members take their seats as efficiently as they can—without having a wee bit of a chat with each other.

Before calling on Iain Gray to speak to and move the motion, for which he has six minutes, I should mention that we have now built in time for interventions in these short debates. There are five or six minutes in hand for interventions—members will make their time up.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I am very pleased to move the motion in order to correct a legal anomaly that creates real problems for families across Scotland.

I begin by paying tribute to the Give Them Time campaign, whose members have organised a remarkably effective campaign to draw attention to what is an injustice and have gathered considerable evidence of its extent. Through their efforts, we debated the issue during a members’ business debate led by Fulton MacGregor, and we have questioned the Minister for Children and Young People on the matter in committee more than once. However, the time has come for Parliament to take a view on the issue and to instruct the Government to fix the matter once and for all.

For more than 30 years, since the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, parents of children who have not reached the age of five at the start date of the school year have had the right to decide whether their child is ready for primary 1 and, if they believe that they are not, to defer the child’s entry to school until the following year. If the child’s fifth birthday falls after 31 December, in January or February, they will continue to receive funded hours of early years education for the intervening year.

However, for those children whose birthday falls between August and December, although the deferral decision is one for parents, such funding is at the discretion of the local authority. Most authorities will not automatically agree such funding. The chances of them doing so, and the processes that they apply, vary widely from authority to authority. Families face rigorous demands for evidence, and decisions are taken by panels of experts, who often do not know the child well at all.

If funding is refused in those circumstances, there is a clear inequity, because families with the resources to do so can self-fund their child’s nursery hours, while those who cannot afford to do that may be faced with no choice but to send their child into primary 1, even though they, as parents, believe that that is not the best thing for their son or daughter.

Even those families who can pay may find that they have to move their child out of their nursery if a local authority does not allow self-funding within one of its early years settings—as many do not—thus disrupting the child’s early education at a critical time.

The numbers are not large: Give Them Time believes that perhaps 1,300 applications for discretionary funding are made in a year, although the impact on the families can be great indeed. The answer is straightforward. Children whose entry is deferred should simply continue to qualify for funded nursery hours at the same rate as three and four-year-olds, which is currently for 600 hours, rising to 1,140 hours next year. It is debatable what additional cost there is, given that the child will be in either nursery or primary 1, but central Government should find whatever resources are required anyway in order to avoid any pressure on cash-strapped councils.

I know that the minister has listened to the campaign and that she met its representatives only last week. She promised them that she will produce improved guidance for local authorities and improve communication to make parents aware of their rights. However, the task is not to better explain this unfair anomaly, but to get rid of it so that all pre-school children have the right to continuous early years education.

The minister told the Education and Skills Committee that her officials are gathering better-quality data on the number of deferrals and on those children’s characteristics by birthday, family income, special needs and so on. However, the task is not to count those children, but to show that they count by allowing them to defer with access to the early years education that we all agree is so important.

I know that the minister will say—as both she and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills have said on many occasions—that a deferral decision should be made in the best interest of the child. I agree with that, but the law says that the decision is to be taken by the child’s parents, not by an anonymous council official or councillors, nursery staff or a panel of professionals. If parents have the right to decide whether or not their four-year-old is ready for school, as the law says that they do, we must respect that decision and protect those children’s rights to early years provision. The way to do that is to change the law as the Labour motion demands.

The caveats in the Government amendment are unnecessary. Of course local authorities will be consulted, as all such legislative change would require, and of course resources must be found and agreed, but our motion stipulates those requirements. The motion is clear and simple, and it is the right thing to do.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises that, under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, parents have the legal right to defer their child’s entry to primary education if they are not five years old by the commencement of the school year; understands that those children who are born in January and February have an automatic entitlement to funded early learning and childcare during the deferred year, while those born between August and December do not have this automatic entitlement; commends the “Give Them Time” campaign for their work in highlighting this issue; calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward legislation in this parliamentary session to automatically entitle young people aged four, who are born between August and December, to funded early learning and childcare in line with statutory government provision for three- and four-year-olds when their parents use their legal right to defer entry to P1, and further calls on the Scottish Government to work with COSLA to ensure the necessary resources are available.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I am glad to have a further opportunity to discuss school deferral, following my recent appearance at the Education and Skills Committee where I made it clear that I am open to considering options in partnership with local government, parents and practitioners. I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Give Them Time campaign for its tireless work to highlight the issue. I recognise the campaign’s efforts to support parents at what I know can be a challenging time. I met members of the campaign again on Friday, and they updated me on their work, the progress that they have seen in the past year and what they think still needs to be done.

Currently, all children who are still four at the start of the school year can defer and start primary 1 the following year. That flexibility allows parents to assess whether their child is ready for school and make the right choice for their child; it is a strength of the Scottish education system.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I am grateful to the minister for giving way. Does she accept that, as things stand, the flexibility that she mentions is flexible only for those parents who can afford it?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I would not agree with that. [

Interruption

.] I will continue, if the member will allow me to do so.

As members know, when parents choose to defer the start of school, only those children with a birthday in January or February are automatically entitled to another year of funded early learning and childcare.

Before I go on to discuss the Government’s amendment, it is important to recognise that children of all ages and abilities should be supported well in the school environment. When I spoke to the Education and Skills committee recently, I repeated my expectation that schools should be child ready, rather than children having to be school ready.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Will the minister do Daniel Johnson the courtesy of answering his question?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I just answered it. I will answer it more fully if I am allowed to progress.

It is a real strength of our system that Scotland has a fully integrated three to 18 curriculum that is flexible enough to empower practitioners to use local approaches that suit their learners.

School deferral has had a high profile since the Give Them Time campaign launched almost a year ago. There have been a lot of changes in that year: the information that is available to parents has improved and there have been many more local discussions about deferral policy.

The decision to defer school for their child is not one that parents take easily. It is essential that that decision is based on the wellbeing of the individual child and not based on their access to early learning and childcare. For that reason, we intend to introduce legislation to entitle all children whose school start is deferred to access funded early learning and childcare in their deferred year. However, there is important preparatory work to be undertaken with our local government colleagues first, which our amendment recognises. It is essential that,

“in line with the principles of local democracy”,

we take forward our commitment with the

“agreement of local government following proper assessment of the resource implications”.

Local authorities are working incredibly hard to prepare for August 2020 and, together, we will need to consider a manageable implementation timetable. We will begin those discussions with our local government colleagues soon, in the spirit of the partnership working that has been vital to the expansion of early learning and childcare.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Time has been built in for interventions, but it is for members to decide whether to take them.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I will finish.

We will continue to work with parents, practitioners and their representatives to support parents and carers to make an informed decision for their individual children.

I move amendment S5M-19193.1, to insert at end:

“, and agrees that, in line with the principles of local democracy, this should be advanced with the agreement of local government following proper assessment of the resource implications, and in partnership with parents and the sector.”

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives and confirm our support for the Labour motion.

I thank lain Gray for providing the Parliament with another opportunity to discuss this important issue. He provided an excellent summary of the problem, which has been around for a while. [

Interruption

.] Members would not be shouting from the Scottish National Party back benches if they had been listening.

I will not repeat the nature of the problem but, let us be clear from the outset, if we believe in empowering parents and respecting their decisions on deferment, we must ensure that action is taken now to address the unacceptable inconsistency that has been created. For a considerable amount of time, campaigners have been asking for equity, transparency and the correct advice and information. That should not be beyond us.

It should not be a case of starting discussions now—the Government has come to it slowly. That the anomaly has not been fixed already speaks to the lack of priority that the SNP Government attaches to deferment. Once again, it is paying lip service to equity and excellence in our education system. The Give Them Time campaign has done a tremendous job, and rightly deserves our gratitude for ensuring that the issue has not been allowed to be forgotten or pushed aside.

That is why I again place on record our disappointment that educational issues that are challenging for the SNP Government are only ever debated in Opposition time. I ask the minister and the Deputy First Minister to reflect on that and ask themselves whether their head-in-the-sand approach inspires the confidence of parents. Anyone who witnessed Maree Todd’s recent appearance at the Education and Skills Committee, where she answered questions on deferment, could not with any certainty say that the Government fully grasped the unfairness of it. I, for one, was unconvinced that simply knowing how many people were affected would solve the practical issues.

That is why, despite Conservative members being sympathetic to the principle of the Government amendment, we will not support it. We do not think that it is necessary. We think that the motion should command unanimous support across the chamber, that the time for passing the buck is over and that the Government needs to take responsibility for its national policies. That means making sure that those policies are rolled out fairly and consistently and that they are properly funded. It also means owning and resolving the unintended consequences. Of course the Scottish Government should be working with local government, but I cannot help but feel that this is another attempt to hide behind local government when the going gets tough.

That said, in the interests of fairness before I close, I pay tribute to and thank those SNP back benchers, particularly Fulton MacGregor, who have worked hard alongside campaigners to ensure that the issue has finally had the proper scrutiny that it deserves.

The Government and the Parliament should be proud of supporting families equally; we should not discriminate against them based on something as arbitrary as a birth month. We should respect their legal rights and make sure that they are supported in accessing the education that their children deserve.

It is quite simple; it is about fairness. The best way to rectify this injustice is simply to bring birthday discrimination to an end and to work together to increase the awareness of parents’ legal right to defer. Let us reduce and remove the bureaucracy. The needs of the child must always come first. I hope that the debate can deliver that and I hope that the Government acts quickly following its discussions.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I t hank lain Gray for bringing this issue to Parliament today.

The age at which children in Scotland start school directly impacts on how ready they are to learn and develop. That is not a controversial point; it is something that we all agree on. We know that children engaging in a play-based environment, particularly where they are socialising with other children, is vital to their development; again, there is consensus on that point.

A multitude of studies have shown that play-based activities are crucial for early development, particularly for the parts of the brain that are responsible for higher functions such as verbal communication. The studies show that play helps to develop children’s understanding of their own emotions, their self-control and communication, their relationship with others and their cognitive understanding of the world around them. By contrast, introducing children too early to more formal and instructional education can have a lasting negative impact, resulting in many children developing a dislike of education and experiencing lasting stress.

Across Europe, Scotland ranks among the earlier school starters, with children usually starting school between the ages of four and a half and five and a half. In most European Union countries, the school starting age is six. In some, including Finland, which we often look to as an example to follow, the starting age is seven. Starting school later means more time and opportunity for play-based learning in an appropriate environment. What the Give Them Time campaign calls for would make that a far more viable option for many children who would otherwise be starting school at just four and a half.

In theory, the youngest children in each year group can defer for a year and start when they are just over five and a half but for many children who are still under five, their right to defer is not automatic. That means that children who are not yet five are being forced to start school when their parents believe that they are not ready.

Although play-based learning has certainly expanded in primary 1, the more formal environment of school is not necessarily the best place to learn—certainly not at the age of four and a half. Lots of good work is happening here but, fundamentally, our schooling system is not designed for it. There is more than a bit of square peg, round hole going on with play-based education.

Deferring the school starting year qualifies parents of children who were born in January and February for another year of statutory ELC funding, as has been mentioned—currently for 600 hours and soon for 1,140 hours. However, if a child is born in August to December, there is no automatic entitlement. Instead, it is essentially a lottery system that is largely dependent on individual local authorities. That is entirely unnecessary, unhelpful and avoidable. It impacts the families who are on the lowest incomes the most and leaves them with no real choice at all. Many children who would have benefited from deferred entry and whose parents would have chosen it are unable to benefit in that way and they are disproportionately from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nurseries and pre-schools simply remain expensive and out of reach for many parents. Often even the delivery of funded hours is not straightforward and requires parents to mix private and subsidised places, if they can afford to do so. As Iain Gray mentioned, some families are forced to move their child to a different nursery for the deferred year. That is a huge disruption.

Even when the 1,140 hours provision is rolled out, that will be the equivalent of only 30 hours per week during school term time. Leaving aside the challenge of holidays, that does not cover full-time hours during term time. If we contrast that with provision in other European nations, it is clear that we still have some way to go on this.

If we are to get it right for every child, we need to ensure that play-based early education is accessible to all, in an appropriate environment, and that it is certainly not dependent on parental income, the month of a child’s birth or a combination of the two, as it is at present. I support the Give Them Time campaign because it is a step in the right direction, but we could be doing so much more in the area.

We need to give serious consideration to raising the school starting age for all children and ensuring that appropriate and properly funded pre-school education is available to provide that vital play-based education. That means universal provision on the same basis as for the early years of primary school. However, that is a debate for another day. For now, the Greens are glad to support the Give Them Time campaign and Iain Gray’s motion.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I thank Labour for the debate and pay tribute to the impressive campaign run by Give Them Time, which has already made a real difference for many of our constituents. We will be supporting the motion.

A few weeks ago, as the minister mentioned, she told the Education and Skills Committee that

Central Government is very clear that schools should be child ready, rather than children having to be school ready”—[

Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,

18 September 2019; c 8.]

but I disagree with that sentiment. What the minister is really saying to parents who are minded to defer children with August to December birthdays is that the Government and local authority professionals know best.

Let me be clear: the Scottish Liberal Democrats want play-based learning to be embedded in the early years and for school leaders to ensure that all children can thrive from their first day in school. However much the learning environment in the early years of school is designed to mirror and be a continuation of the nursery experience, the fact remains that some children will benefit from another year of nursery education. However, some parents are being forced to risk their entitlement in order to do what they know is best for their child. As one of my constituents, Kay Anderson, explained to me “the thought of having to choose between him going to school, where he’d had such a good experience, or nowhere at all was horrendous.”

In many cases, parents who are denied funding for deferral are told that there is no cognitive reason for their child not to go to school, but parents know that the best time for their child to attend school does not depend just on their ability to learn. Parents know how important it is for their child to go through school with their friends, how their child feels before going to, and after coming home from, nursery, how confident their child is and how they adapt to new environments, but that may still be undermined, as another of my constituents said, “all just because of when his birthday is.”

Those are crucial factors that can be missed when arm’s-length decisions are taken, as seems to be happening too often. Let me remind the chamber that the school starting age was set in 1870 to free up cheap labour in factories. We are much more informed about child development now. What is more, as we have heard, it is misleading to speak as if the parents of children who would defer are receiving an extra free nursery year. Those children may have received a year less of early years education than the others who would be in their peer group at school.

Reform Scotland’s briefing “Closing the early years gap”, sets out clearly how some children could start school having missed out on more than 1,000 hours of play-based learning. We are in a situation in which some parents have to apply to receive their full funded ELC entitlement, which is at their local authority’s discretion. That has created an unacceptable postcode lottery and it is not consistent with the Government’s aim of closing the attainment gap. If we must bring economics into decisions that are fundamentally about getting it right for every child, that equation is surely cancelled out by the benefits that will be seen throughout the child’s educational career and beyond.

The right to defer is an important one and the Government must introduce the necessary legislation to allow parents to exercise that right.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate and speeches of four minutes. Some members have not pressed their request-to-speak buttons yet, although I suspect that they are ready to speak.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I am pleased to speak in the debate in support of the Give Them Time campaign, because the simple reality is this: the moment when they send their five-year-old to school is an anxious one for any parent. They worry about how their child will get on and whether they are ready, and that is especially true if it is not a five-year-old, but a four-year-old, whom they are sending to school.

That is not just an emotional decision for a parent; it is a reasonable decision, because we know that happy, confident and well-socialised children learn better in school. What is more, the science is also clear: as Ross Greer pointed out, study after study has shown that when children start school later their educational outcomes are improved and that older children do better than younger ones in the same class. Therefore it is right that parents are given the option to defer the start date for a child who is not yet five when the school year starts. That is exactly what the law currently does: the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 is clear in recognising that such judgments should be made by parents.

Likewise, the Scottish Government’s early years policy is the right one, for the two clear reasons that it espouses. First, it is right that we aim to give every child the best start in their education that we can. It is also important for working families that early years provision is put in place. However, the Government has created an absurd gap, because early years provision stops before school provision has to start. There are two important dates: December for early years provision and September for school. If the policy of extending early years provision is right, surely it should be in place for as long as it is needed. Quite simply, that gap needs to be fixed, because the system needs to be fair for all families.

I turn to the Scottish National Party’s amendment. It recognises the issue, which I welcome. However, its focus is on two aspects, which I believe is incorrect. The first of those is funding. The extension of early years provision is a policy of the Scottish Government, which provides the funding for it. It therefore calls the shots and could extend the provision if there were to be a question mark over it. However, I make the small observation that we all know how hard pushed local authorities are to deliver such provision on the basis of the funding. It strikes me that there might be more than a little penny pinching on the part of local authorities—if they are making such decisions at all.

The more fundamental point that is at stake is about standards. Of course, there should be discretion in how education policy is delivered at local level. However, that should not apply to everything. We set standards at national level. We do not leave it up to schools to set the age at which they start teaching children; that is set out in law. Neither do we leave it up to local authorities to decide whether they will provide early years education; we say that they must do so. The extension of early years provision to children with later birthdays is another standard that I think local authorities should have to uphold.

The second issue with the SNP’s amendment is that it acknowledges only two parties in relation to such decisions: central and local government. The reality is that those decisions ought not to be made by either of those parties: they are decisions for parents, who should also have the right to flexibility—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is just closing.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Parents should be afforded such decisions now—not once the Government has had further discussions.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

I, too, thank Iain Gray for using his time to discuss the issue, which I have taken up over the past eight to 10 months. However, as other members have said, thanks should go mainly to the Give Them Time campaign, which was launched in Edinburgh at the end of last year and has worked tirelessly on the issue. I also thank my constituents in Coatbridge and Chryston who were involved in the campaign, who invited me along to the launch to hear about its concerns and the research that it has done.

As others have said, the simple principle that underlies the campaign is that a parent should decide whether their four-year-old should start school when the law requires it. No one would argue with that. Likewise, the campaign makes no argument that there should be deferment for all four-year-olds as standard—far from it. Among campaigners there is consensus that the majority will continue to send their children when they are four, if they are eligible to do so; the issue is simply that the individual circumstances of each child should be considered.

As I said in the members’ business debate that was held on the same subject in May, until I learned of the campaign I was not aware that school starting dates for children born between September and December could be deferred. The issue does not impact on me as both of my children were or will be over five when starting school. However, the campaign has served to highlight the issue more broadly, to the extent that this is the second debate on the subject in the Parliament and it has been given time in several council chambers around the country, with varying degrees of success. I will come back to that.

As others have said, the difficulty arises not with the principle of the law, but in councils allowing for an additional year of funding. There are wide variations in how councils approach the issue. It has been brought to my attention and that of many other MSPs that families are often put through rigid, time-consuming and stressful processes that involve collating information from various professionals including nursery staff, speech and language therapists, social workers and many others. That often uses up valuable time and resources and creates expense, only for a panel to refuse the deferral request and an appeal process to start.

As I highlighted during the members’ business debate—and as the minister has, I think, recognised—there is a real equality issue at the core of that process and the subsequent appeal process. More affluent families are able to put resources into challenging decisions and, ultimately, they more often get favourable outcomes.

I disagree with some of the members who have spoken today, because I know that the minister and the Government have reflected on the issues since the members’ business debate, and I have welcomed the steps that the Scottish Government has taken. Just last week, in a response to me in the chamber, the minister reiterated her desire to refresh the statutory guidance and hold a public consultation. I welcome both Iain Gray’s motion and the amendment. We can probably reach a broad consensus, and I would ask that party politics is not played out today.

North Lanarkshire Council and Falkirk Council are leading the way on the issue. In June, a motion that was brought forward in North Lanarkshire by SNP Councillor Allan Stubbs was unanimously agreed to by all parties, making it the policy in North Lanarkshire. I was encouraged by that and I thought that there was a possibility that we could encourage other councils to follow suit so, during the summer recess, and following another meeting with the Give Them Time campaign, I wrote to every council in Scotland. However, the responses were again variable. Most, if not all, agreed with the general principles, but few were keen to enact them in the way that North Lanarkshire and Falkirk have done. Some stressed that they granted all or most placements anyway, and others declared that there was no need for their policies to be altered until the Scottish Government legislated for it. A bit of what Oliver Mundell said about the relationship between the Scottish Government and local government is reflected in some of the letters from the local authorities to the Scottish Government.

Today is another significant milestone on the journey to equity for all four-year olds, whether they start school in January or February, for which automatic funding is available, or earlier in the school term. I express my heartfelt thanks to the members of the Give Them Time campaign, whose tenacity and determination have brought us to this point.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank Iain Gray for bringing this debate to the chamber in Labour Party time. I also pay tribute to Fulton MacGregor, not just for his remarks in the debate this afternoon but for his members’ business debate and all the work that he has undertaken with the Give Them Time campaign. He has done a wonderful job and we all owe him gratitude for that.

It is important to see this debate in the context of the best educational interests of young children as they approach primary school age. That is, of course, the context of GIRFEC, which has already been mentioned by a couple of speakers. There is also the context of extending parental choice.

The debate comes at a time when there are much wider debates about the best age to start schooling, which Ross Greer mentioned, and about the structure of primary 1 teaching and how the education that is provided to any child in that year articulates with early years provision and then education from P2 onwards. Specifically, though, the debate is about an inherent unfairness in the system, which Fulton MacGregor highlighted, and that is why we have, I think, all been persuaded that the two stated aims of the Give Them Time campaign are absolutely right.

The first aim is for the deferment of a four-year-old child’s entry to school to be based on the decision of a parent or guardian. Although many parents choose to send their child to school while the child is still four, others choose to defer entry for all sorts of reasons, and they have a right in law to do so.

The campaigners’ second aim is that there should be a level playing field. If parents make the decision to defer entry for their child because he or she has a January or February birthday, as Iain Gray described, they will automatically be entitled to an additional year of pre-school funding, but that is not the same for children who have birthdays later in the year. For such children, instead of there being an automatic entitlement, the decision about funding is at the discretion of the local authority, and it often involves those who have very little knowledge of the child. It is on that point that the Given Them Time campaign is absolutely right to talk about the unfairness of the situation.

The situation is made worse by the fact that only a fifth of parents are fully aware of what the current law is, which means that four fifths are not as aware of their entitlement and might easily lose out because of that lack of awareness. That is surely a very worrying situation for us. Although it is clear that we should credit the Government with making some progress, there is still an awful lot more to be done to ensure that there is a proper level playing field, in order to weed out any automatic discrimination.

Indeed, given the feedback that the Give Them Time campaign has received, we know that it is the area of public information that perhaps needs the greatest attention. The campaign deserves a huge amount of credit for flagging up exactly where the information gaps lie, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that we are speaking to the local authorities that we represent to bring about qualitative improvement. However, the fundamental point is that a legislative change is required, which is why we are very keen to support the Labour motion.

The issue is very much related to equality. We all know that better-off parents are often more articulate when it comes to knowing their rights and being prepared to tackle the authorities, and dealing with any appeals process if they feel that there is an injustice. Less well-off parents might struggle a bit more to know what their rights are and, therefore, their children are more at risk of losing out. I am sure that the Scottish Government would not countenance the continuation of a policy that engenders inequality.

The Scottish Government must surely work with local authorities to ensure that they offer parents who have chosen to defer entry fully funded nursery provision for the year of the deferment. The statistical analysis suggests that the costs should be relatively minimal—indeed, there are some who believe that there could be cost savings.

I will finish on a point of considerable principle. There is an inherent difficulty with the policy and it is on that basis that we need to make the legislative change. We should be true to the principle of GIRFEC: it is about the best interests of every child, which is exactly why the 1980 act says what it says. If it is good-quality education that we are all after—and I believe it is absolutely clear that we are—we need to make that change.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I pay tribute to my friend and colleague Fulton MacGregor, who first brought the matter of the Give Them Time campaign to the chamber in May this year in a members’ business debate. I also thank the members of the campaign for all their tenacious work on the issue, and Iain Gray, for lodging the motion for debate today.

As has been said, the Give Them Time campaign advocates for

“a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to” nursery funding for deferred school starts across Scotland.

GIRFEC, which underpins our education system in Scotland, is rooted in a child-centred approach. Therefore, the aspirations of the Give Them Time campaign are, from the outset, in line with our current educational landscape. The Give Them Time campaign is focused on giving parents, or a legal guardian, the right to defer the start of their four-year-old’s school education. As the Labour Party’s motion states:

“under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, parents have the legal right to defer their child’s entry to primary education if they are not five years old by the commencement of the school year”.

The year 1980 was a different time, or so I am told. In Scottish classrooms, the belt was still in use. I remember a former boss telling me how, as a young teacher, she was taught how to belt, with the headteacher lining up staff and encouraging them to practise on a desk. It is, therefore, important to reflect on how much has changed in Scotland since the 1980 act. The Give Them Time campaign is rooted in giving parents a greater say about their child’s school readiness, and empowering parents is central to the Scottish Government’s ambitions around closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

Joanna Murphy, who is the chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said:

“Parents should know their rights so they can decide what is best for their individual child. We believe the same opportunities for extra nursery funding should be available to every family across Scotland and not be dependent on postcode.”

As I said, empowering parents is essential to the Government’s ambitions around the poverty-related attainment gap, and as Liz Smith mentioned, only 19 per cent of parents already know that they have a legal right to deferral for children with September to December birthdays, compared to the more than 80 per cent of parents who know about their right to defer entry if their child was born in January or February.

To deal with the knowledge gap that Liz Smith mentioned, local authorities need to communicate effectively with parents and carers about their rights, but there is perhaps a role for central Government to support that work at the national level. Labour’s motion demands action from the Scottish Government and, as the minister has confirmed, that action will be taken. I am sure that Labour members will agree that it has to be done in a spirit of co-operation, and as the Government amendment makes clear,

“following proper assessment of the resource implications, and in partnership with parents and the sector.”

Therein lies the rub because, as we have heard, although parents can legally choose to defer their child’s school entry if they are not five at the start of the school year, they will not automatically qualify for funded early learning and childcare. That is a matter for each individual local authority, as it rightly should be if we are to adhere to the spirit of localism.

It was reported this morning that, thanks to the Scottish Government, more than 46,000 children across Scotland are already benefiting from extra hours of high-quality early learning and childcare. The main aims of the expansion are threefold: first, to improve children’s outcomes and help close the poverty-related attainment gap; secondly, to increase family resilience through improved health and wellbeing of children and parents; and, thirdly, to support parents into work, study or training. Quality early learning and childcare is crucial for all children.

Ross Greer mentioned play-based learning. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Warout primary school in Glenrothes and met the primary 1 class, who were learning all about being in the police. On opening the door, I was surrounded by tiny four and five-year-olds. Lots of them wanted to hug me and some took me by the hand, which was a surreal experience for a former secondary teacher. The entire classroom is set up to enable play-based learning. The rows of desks that I would have learned at in 1989 are gone and the blackboard is a distant memory. The headteacher explained to me the importance of giving structured time to play and said that it is integral to the development of her pupils, many of whom might not get the opportunity to play at home.

Our education system has moved on from the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. We now have a national curriculum that puts the learner at its heart. In supporting the Give Them Time campaign today, we are acknowledging the importance of parents’ knowledge of when their child is ready to begin school.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

This is not the first time that the Parliament has debated the aims of the Give Them Time campaign, but it is the first time that we will have a vote on the proposal. I fully support the right of parents or carers to defer the start of school until their child is five and I will vote tonight for automatic entitlement to a nursery place for a deferred year.

In May, I took part in Fulton MacGregor’s member’s business debate on the issue. It is clear that there is support across the political parties for the campaign, which is about addressing an inconsistency in the law. That law gives parents a clear right to make a decision to defer but too often has negative consequences, as it does not always provide continuing education. The inconsistent approach across Scotland leaves too many families feeling disempowered, under investigation and disadvantaged. This afternoon, we can commit to ending that situation and supporting parents’ decisions on when their child is emotionally, socially and intellectually ready for school.

On the one hand, the legislation is clear that a child does not have to start school until they are five but, on the other, children are expected to start school at age four if their birthday is between school commencement and December. Parents whose child is four in December or January have the same choice to defer the child’s entry, but some parents who exercise the right to defer are not provided with an additional year’s nursery place, because that policy is not consistently applied by local authorities.

I have an issue with some of the language and, in particular, the terms “defer” and “additional”. The legislation says that a child does not need to register with a school prior to their fifth birthday, so why is not starting school at four seen as a delay when it is true to the legislation? We talk about an “additional” year at nursery, but the reality is that the children who start school at four typically have the least time at nursery. They start nursery in the January following their third birthday, so they have only one and a half years there rather than two. They are the youngest in the school year, but they have had the least pre-school education.

In the debate in May and today, we have talked a lot about awareness raising and parents’ lack of knowledge of the right to defer. That is important, but it does not resolve the issue of children not being awarded a nursery place. A parent can decide that they want to defer and go through what some describe as a bureaucratic and difficult assessment, but then the education authority might decide that it will not support deferral. Although the child can legally still wait a year, the education authority does not have to provide what it sees as an additional year’s nursery provision.

We should not forget that a child who starts school at four will start high school at 11 and will be almost a whole year younger than others at a challenging time in their education, when they are entering a period of exams and increased stress and are going through adolescence.

For many parents, the consideration of their child’s high school starting age is as relevant as their child’s primary school starting age.

In the previous debate, I asked the minister to consider whether discussions could take place with parents at an earlier stage. There could be an initial discussion about options at the point when a child turns three and a parent is offered a January nursery place. Perhaps a parent of a younger child could be offered the opportunity to delay the start of nursery until the August intake. The child would then receive two full years of nursery, as the majority of other children do, and start school at five. If the barrier is financial, that approach would result in no child receiving additional months in education.

However, the simpler solution—this is the one that I fully support—would be to change the necessary legislation so that there is an automatic right to a further year of nursery education every time that a parent chooses to defer the school start.

Our motion today calls for “the necessary resources” for the policy of automatic nursery provision. I welcome the Government’s announcement that it intends to legislate, but if it actually supports the content of the motion, its amendment is unnecessary—unless it is an attempt to avoid or delay making that legislative change. When I wrote to the local authorities in my region, they did not say that the decisions that they are making about deferrals are governed by funding. The number of families involved is quite small and in many cases there is available space in a local nursery to enable nursery provision to continue. The Give Them Time campaign also makes the fair point that the savings made from all the children who have only one and a half years of nursery education could offset any additional costs.

We cannot support the growth of self-financing by parents—it must not be the only option open to parents who want their child to benefit from a continued nursery placement. I hope that members can agree to the calls of the Give Them Time campaign and support legislative change in this Parliament.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I, too, thank Iain Gray for giving us the opportunity to debate this crucial issue in the chamber once again.

Under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, as we have heard, parents have a legal right to defer the entry to school of a child who is not yet aged five on the school commencement date. For a variety of reasons, many parents choose to exercise that right, but it ultimately comes down to the feeling that their child is not yet ready to begin primary school. As I am sure that we can all appreciate, a child’s development is never predicable.

Although many local authorities are sympathetic to parents who wish to defer their child’s entry to school, I am sad to say that that is not always the case. Many councils do not offer another funded year to parents, forcing them to make a difficult choice—which is often limited by financial constraints—about their child’s future.

The Government often says that it wants to get it right for every child. Parental choice is an important aspect of early years education, particularly given that the ultimate decision to defer entry remains in the hands of parents. Today, we have the opportunity to ensure that parental choice is respected.

Sometimes, parental choice seems to be viewed as an inconvenience. However, parents know what is best for their child and their decision should not be undermined by budget considerations, regional inconsistencies or inaccurate information on the right to defer. They certainly should not be forced to endure a harsh, inflexible and, frankly, flawed process, as Claire Baker has said, that involves professionals analysing, scrutinising, and, most important, making decisions for a child most of them will have never met.

As we have heard, the solution is simple. We have repeatedly called for an end to the unfair loophole of birthday discrimination. More has to be done to ensure that the information on deferral rights is accurate and accessible, and that local authority education professionals are fully aware of the legal deferral rights of children. That would ensure some level of fairness in an otherwise unfair system. The Government must work with local authorities to ensure that all councils offer the parents of children born between August and December the opportunity to defer their child’s schooling and remain in fully funded nursery care.

Given that there has been no shortage of problems with the 1,140 hours scheme, we must ensure that all early learning providers are properly funded, so that children can receive the high level of care and education that we expect.

Too many of Scotland's early learning providers have had to shut their doors for good. Last week, a nursery provider told me that since last October, they have lost 50 employees to public providers. Those are 50 valued employees with developed relationships with children. So far, the minister’s response has been to stick her head in the sand and stubbornly deny that there is an issue.

It is remarkable that we have a general policy that is universally accepted as the right direction by all members in this chamber but whose implementation methodology has been universally rejected by every member, bar the SNP MSPs. If the minister continues to ignore the partnership nursery pleas, the problem will soon become insurmountable—with all the devastating consequences for nursery provision that would follow.

The Scottish Government must respect the principles of parental choice, so that equity and fairness are at the heart of any legislation.

I want to close my speech by praising the Give Them Time campaign. As others have said, it has had remarkable success in raising awareness of this gap in parents’ knowledge, and it deserves the utmost praise. Today’s debate is about ensuring that we all work together in the best interests of children and that local authorities do the same. Surely getting it right for every child should mean getting it right for every child.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I, too, commend my colleague Fulton McGregor. I attended but did not speak in the debate in May. That was when I first really understood the scope and scale of the issues that are being raised by the Give Them Time campaign, which I also commend for its persistence and tenacity in pursuing the issue and highlighting it to members.

Many members, including Brian Whittle and my colleague Jenny Gilruth, have mentioned the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. However, it is also worth considering that in July 2000, a deferrals working group was set up by the then Scottish Executive to report on education provision for children who were born between September and February. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland produced guidelines that were drawn from the working group.

Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Minister for Education at the time, announced his intention to extend entitlement to publicly funded pre-school education for the very youngest children—those with January and February birthdays. I am sure that, at that time, the Executive did not mean to create any inconsistency or anomaly, down the line.

However, 2001 is a long time ago, and families are facing problems in deciding what is in the best interests of their child when they are making a decision about deferral. The guidance at that time said that the decision should be centred on the best interests of the individual child. I am sure that everyone in the chamber agrees that that remains the critical issue. The decision needs to be informed, and the information that is given to parents should be consistent in all areas.

I was appalled to read in the original briefing from Give Them Time of the differences and anomalies in terms of informing parents across local authorities. Rather than name and shame particular local authorities, I will commend Clackmannanshire Council, which the campaign has highlighted for giving clear and unambiguous advice to inform parents about that very important decision about their child’s future.

Access to a paid place varies among local authorities. Parents who are unable to fund additional nursery costs as a result of a deferment are obviously at a disadvantage, because the right to deferral cannot be matched by their family finances. That cannot continue. I was therefore delighted to hear the minister accept the principles of the Labour motion and say that she will work constructively with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that changes can be implemented in a timely fashion, and with the co-operation of our partners.

As we have seen, the intention of the decisions that were made by the Liberal-Labour Administration in 2001 was always to do what is in the best interests of the child, but the very nature of introducing something can change decisions that are made. We have to be very careful that the right to entitlement, as well as the right to deferral, do not completely skew the numbers that come forward. We also need to understand any unintended consequences, so that when we implement rights it is done in a timely and organised manner that does not put additional pressures on local authorities, and is done in the best interests of our young people.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

I thank Iain Gray for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I pay tribute to Fulton MacGregor. I also want to commend speeches by members from across the chamber—too many to mention individually in my short allocation of time.

Today’s debate has focused on the Give Them Time campaign’s ambition to end the unfairness that faces many families whose children are born between mid-August and the end of December. As we have heard, parents have a legal right to defer those children’s entry to P1 for a year if they decide that the child is not yet ready to begin school. However, as things currently stand, those children are not legally entitled to automatic funded childcare throughout that deferment year: rather, that funding decision is left to each local authority.

In contrast, children who are born in January and February are automatically entitled to funded childcare if their entry is deferred, which means that the picture for a child who is born in December might be totally different from that for a child who is born in January.

As a result of my curiosity about that varying picture, I recently submitted a freedom of information request to every local authority in Scotland. For the year 2018-19, only three of the 28 local authorities that responded said that they automatically grant that year of funded childcare to children who are born between mid-August and December. On top of that, just 15 said that they grant more than 90 per cent of requests for the funded year. The result of that variance in policies among councils is that many parents who wish to defer their child’s entry to P1 are unable to do so. That evidence and the speeches that we have heard today confirm the inconsistency of the situation across Scotland.

Should it not, therefore, follow that the Scottish Government would make every effort to correct that? The Government’s amendment today surprises me only a little, because in an Education and Skills Committee meeting in May, the Minister for Children and Young People told the committee that she was confident that local authorities

“make decisions on the basis of the best interests of the child and in conjunction with the parents.”—[

Official Report

,

Education and Skills Committee

, 22 May 2019; c 8.]

In fact, the minister responded to several different questions from the committee with exactly the same response. However, if the minister had been confident that that was the case, there would not now be a commitment to introduce legislation to fix the anomaly.

As matters stand, two children who live in two different local authority areas who are at similar stages of development and might even share the same birthday could end up at opposite ends of the choice just because their local authorities have different policies on funding the extra year of childcare. It appears from the minister’s words in committee that the Scottish Government’s position was, until today, that every child who was denied that year of childcare received their best possible outcome.

Let us be clear: today’s motion does not seek to restrict local democracy. That being the case, the Government’s amendment is not pertinent. The motion is about correcting the anomaly that we all agree exists. There should be no anomaly; there should be a clear route from nursery to primary school, regardless of where the child lives. The decision on when a child goes to school should be based on the parents’ opinion of whether their child is ready for that step.

Starting school is one of the most important days in a child’s life—not to mention the parents’ lives. It is essential that we get that day right for every child.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate. I know that many members will be familiar with issues relating to the policy that we are discussing, and might be directly supporting families with related issues in their constituencies.

I have been listening to concerns from parents and practitioners. I commend the people who are involved in the Give Them Time campaign for their work on the issue. I have enjoyed working with them over the past year, and look forward to working with them over the next.

Parents are the primary educators of their children and they know their children best. The law already makes it clear that school deferral is a matter of parental choice. I agree that we can take further action to support parents and carers to make that decision based entirely on the wellbeing and needs of their child, supported by the professionals and practitioners who work closely with the child.

We will now have, with our local government partners, the discussions that are required in order properly to assess the resource implications and agree a reasonable implementation timetable. I will update Parliament on that, in due course.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The motion is explicit that the legislation should change in this parliamentary session. Will the minister give that commitment?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

As I have said, I will talk to local government partners and will update

Parliament on that in due course.

We all agree that parents and carers should be supported to make informed choices about school start—choices that are focused entirely on the needs and wellbeing of the individual child. We will continue to work with parents, carers, practitioners and their representatives across the ELC and school sectors to ensure that parents and carers have access to information and resources to help them to make the right choices for their families.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

If the minister is not able to commit to legislation in this parliamentary session, will she commit today to putting interim arrangements in place to make sure that no more children are affected by the issue in the next school year?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

I believe that we have made great progress over the past year. I am more than comfortable to work with local authority partners, parents and educators to make progress.

It is particularly important that parents and carers understand the support that children will receive at school. That is all the more important for children with additional support needs. The increase in the statutory entitlement to 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare will further help to support a child’s journey through the early phase of curriculum for excellence and beyond. We are already hearing fantastic stories from families about the positive impact of the extra hours for their child’s development and their family’s wellbeing. Today, we have published our latest progress report, which shows that more than 46,000 children in Scotland are already benefiting from extra hours, almost a year ahead of the full roll-out of 1,140 hours.

A number of colleagues have referenced play-based learning, which educators are already utilising. I have visited lots of schools in which I was not able to tell the difference between a nursery class and a primary 1 class. Ultimately, we should trust our educators to deliver education in the way that best suits individual learners. As I have said, that is a real strength of our system in Scotland.

I reiterate that it is right for us to recognise parents’ views, as the primary educators of their child, and it is also right that we support them and give them the information that they need to make informed choices that have the wellbeing of the child at their centre. I record my thanks to the Give Them Time campaign group and to Fulton MacGregor MSP for their incredible commitment to ensuring that Scotland’s children get the very best start in life.

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

It is a pleasure to be closing today’s debate for Scottish Labour on a crucial motion that could help to tackle the attainment gap in education, tackle poverty and improve the rights of children and families.

The debate has been constructive and mostly consensual, and has shown clear understanding of the benefits of the Give Them Time campaign. In the short time that I have available, it would be difficult for me to reflect on all of the many contributions that have been made, but I welcome and support remarks that were made by lain Gray, Oliver Mundell, Daniel Johnson, Fulton MacGregor, Liz Smith, Claire Baker and Jenny Gilruth.

Any parent who uses their legal right to defer their child’s entry to school should do so with the knowledge that their child will be given the same rights as other children, regardless of their age or where they live. I wholly support the aims of the Give Them Time campaign, and pay tribute to those who have worked hard to promote the issue.

Parents have led the campaign with the best interests of their children at the core of their ambition. That is why the Scottish Government must listen and must act on the wishes of MSPs who vote in favour of our motion today and the parents on whose behalf we speak.

It is clear that the Scottish Government wants to be ambitious with early learning and childcare—that has been demonstrated with the expansion of childcare. Why does it not further demonstrate that ambition and do what is right for children who were born between August and December?

Placing the burden on local government alone will not end the inequity. That is why we cannot support the Government’s amendment. If it were passed, it would allow the Government to not act and instead simply to place the responsibility on local government. Our motion addresses funding and legislation at national level. Once again, the Government is avoiding the issue with an unnecessary amendment.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to making progress, but it has been asked twice in interventions for a timetable for implementation. It is simply not good enough to say that the Government will consult and take the matter forward.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Will Mary Fee reflect on the fact that the purpose of the Government’s amendment is to enable us to provide for Parliament exactly the detail that she has just said has not been provided in this debate?

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

No. The motion contains an explicit timetable. That cannot be contradicted.

Local government cannot be left to fix the situation alone. Some 138 requests for an additional year of funded nursery provision have been denied, out of a total of 1,188. That represents more than one in 10 of those families having to make the difficult choice either to send their child to primary school, even though the child might not be ready, or to pay for a service which for other children is funded.

Children who were born between September and December and who attend school before their fifth birthday receive a total of 18 months’ entitlement, which is six months less than those who were born between March and August get. That has been labelled “birthday discrimination”. If we add that to the clear postcode lottery that operates across local authorities, it is evident that hundreds of children are being let down each year.

Does the minister agree that, although those are small numbers, many more children are missing out on funding for an additional year because of lack of information? Does she wish to see that so-called discrimination end?

Parents have provided quotations to the Give Them Time campaign. If the Government will not listen to Opposition MSPs, I ask it to consider the reality that many parents face. Parents have said:

“I was continuously told I was putting my child at a disadvantage. That we would not get funding. That it was not in my child’s best interest”,

and that

“The nursery staff appear to be actively encouraged by the local authority to discourage parents from the deferral option.”

Another said:

“My frustrations relate to being told that my view was not required as part of the deferral process, being told I may require legal representation, being told by someone that I have never met what my son’s strengths are and why he should go to school when my views were the complete opposite. My list could go on and on! No communication for 4 months!”

Those are the frustrated words of parents. They highlight a lack of transparency and consistency, and a failure to be child centred.

By voting for the motion, Parliament can collectively play our part in helping to tackle the attainment gap, especially for children from the poorest backgrounds who could benefit more from an additional year of nursery before going to school.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on the Give Them Time campaign.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It is my understanding that our standing orders and our code of conduct include being respectful to one another in the chamber. Does that apply to Scottish Government front-bench members, who chatted all the way through Mary Fee’s closing speech?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I hear what Ms Smith said. She knows that that is for me to decide. It is not unusual for members on all the front benches to chatter and mutter away, and to have interchanges that do not go through the chair. I am quite happy to remind every member that they should respect their fellow MSPs.