Enigma of the Deferred Entry Question

Posted by in February's Magazine

Enrolment week at the local primary school, and my life has been taken over by a quandary that manages to be at once both mesmerising and tedious: the great Deferred Entry question. As a foreigner in these parts: an English woman living in Leith, I had initially dismissed the issue. When someone explained to me that because my daughter has a birthday at the end of January, I can choose which school year she enters, I thought ‘oh, how pleasantly flexible of the good people of Scotland, but I will just send her as soon as possible’. When it was also explained that regardless of when your child’s birthday is you can apply to have their school place deferred I thought, ‘well what kind of nutter would want to do that?’ Little did I know then of the child-deferring frenzy that was sweeping Edinburgh.

And I do mean quite specifically Edinburgh. Figures for ‘discretionary’ deferred entry here, i.e. when a child is not one of the youngest in the year but seen by parents or nursery staff as ‘not ready’ for school, are three times higher than the rest of Scotland. It seems highly unlikely that our capital is producing a generation of less mature children than anywhere else in the country, so what is going on here? Nearly everyone I know is actually applying to send their child to school later. This means if I send my daughter to school as planned she will be a four year old in a class full of six year olds. Even with the genius, maturity and wit she is likely inherit from her mother, this sounds like it could be a challenge, so what’s a parent to do?


Searching through online forums for answers offers me the rather unhelpful conclusion that very few people regret deferring their child’s school entry; but very few people regret building conservatories or taking holidays in the Swiss Alps, and I am not in a position to do those things either. The truth is I really need my daughter to go to school. I have been a full-time mum for three and a quarter years now, and have accepted the chronic lack of money, personal freedom and sanity that goes with that, and while I have loved and treasured it I have, frankly, just about had enough. Does that make me a bad mother or just a normal one? And will my child suffer because of it?

Statistically children who are older members of their year group do better at school initially. Another argument is to look to northern European countries like Finland and their enviable educations systems, where children do not begin formal education until they are six or seven. There are also arguments about young people’s development, that deferring children might help prevent them ‘growing up too quickly’ as when one mother reported that she regretted not deferring her daughter because now at age twelve her daughter was hanging round with girls who were thirteen and fourteen and becoming interested in boys. Marvellous, I thought, now I will not only be responsible for my child’s academic underachievement, but for her sexual deviance and no doubt drug abuse as well.

13 times more impact
The official council documents do bring a welcome sense of perspective, while children who start school late may do better initially, the differences are irrelevant after three years, moreover a child’s home environment has a whopping thirteen times more impact on their educational achievements than their school starting age. Indeed, current council guidelines put forward the counter-argument that children who defer can reach sixteen before they take their standard grades, and so are more likely to leave school without any formal qualifications. The council has therefore recently developed the policy, or at least the gentle encouragement against deferral, and is refusing ever-so-slightly more deferral requests each year. At this, an array of angry parents take to online forums to say this is just cost-cutting propaganda by the council, but the point is, there is only one pot of money marked ‘early years education’, and if some parents are taking from it for extra nursery years for their little darlings then somebody else’s kids are losing out. Namely kids whose parents or carers need to get them to school to try and go back to work, or look after other kids, or generally Not Go Mental.

This leads to what might be the really crux of the issue here: the line taken in an official council report is that, while warning of the danger of falling for ‘fashions’ and ‘trends’ in education, parents are undoubtedly acting for the ‘best interests of their children’.  But when the best interest of you children is against the best interest of other people’s children, is that really ok? It soon starts to feel like yet another way in which privileged children get an advantage over poorer ones. By all means, lets make formal education start later if that’s what’s best for kids, by all means give people more choices. But lets not just have one more circumstance where those choices are only really available to those who can afford them.

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