More four years olds starting school, and huge differences across Scotland

We’ve been hearing from lots of parents who have been misled about their rights to defer school entry, or been put under pressure not to do it. Anecdotally, some councils have had a crackdown on deferrals, while Edinburgh has been public about theirs. The information on some council websites is flatly wrong. So I decided to find out what’s really going on across the country.

An academic helpfully pointed me toward a report that the Scottish Government publishes each year on the numbers of children in each year group in Scottish schools, split by their age on 28th February of the following year. If a child is older than its normal age on that date, then it’s very likely because their entry to school was deferred. This means that we have a decent figure for the deferral rate across the country.


There are a couple of small caveats to that – if a pupil repeats a year then they would be older than normal for their year group, and often children from other countries go into a year group behind their age. But these numbers are very small and only slightly affect the figures. I know this because I’ve checked the data on progression for four years for the P1 and S1 cohorts of 2010. For this blog is the home of the dork: Age profile of 2010 P1 and S1 cohorts, 2010 to 2013(web)

I contacted the Scottish Government and asked if this data could be broken down by local authority, and they duly and very helpfully responded – for which, many, many thanks. Here you can download full tables for what I worked up from the data: Deferral rate by local authority 2001-2013 (web).

Bear in mind that the deferral rate for any given year covers the kids who were deferred from the previous year.

What the figures showed was astonishing. Here are some highlights:

  • A child in Shetland is five times more likely to be deferred than a child in North Lanarkshire.
  • If there had been the same level of deferrals this year as seven years ago, and if those children had all been given funded nursery places, it would have cost Scottish councils an additional £1.4 million.
  • The deferral rate across Scotland has been falling for seven years, although there’s a slight increase this year due to more girls being deferred.
  • In some councils, in the past seven years, the deferral rate has halved.
  • If there was the same rate of deferrals now as at their peak, there would have been around 900 more children in Scotland deferred this year.
  • For boys, the deferral rate has fallen for each of the past seven years, from 11.95% to 9.79%. If it were the same rate today as it was at the peak, over 600 more boys would have been deferred this year.
  • The council with the highest overall deferral rate this year is Orkney, where over 20% of all P1 pupils this year were deferred.
  • The council with the lowest deferral rate this year is North Lanarkshire, where less than 4% of pupils were deferred.
  • Variation in deferral rates seems to be closely aligned with the old Regional Council areas – Strathclyde and Central are the lowest, with the Islands, Highland and Tayside running at about twice their rate of deferrals.

Why are there fewer deferrals?

There are a few possible factors. The two main ones would be the economic downturn, and council policy and practice.

The economic downturn may have meant that families were struggling more with childcare costs, and so fewer could afford deferral. This is possible, and the fall in the rate of deferrals does start just at the turn in the economy. It should be remembered that January and February-born children have a right to an additional funded year in nursery, and those born September to December being able to get a funded place if the council agrees, which in practice they usually do. But of course, this only covers a small proportion of the total childcare costs for most children, and many families cannot access a funded place at all. So economic factors could well play a part.

Can that really explain it all though? And if it is a big factor, wouldn’t it show up most in the areas suffering most from the downturn?

The local authorities with the biggest falls in deferral levels are Aberdeenshire, Clackmannanshire, Aberdeen City, Inverclyde, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire and Eilean Siar, who are all down over a third from their own peaks. Councils where deferrals haven’t fallen much, or have recently increased, start with South Lanarkshire, South Ayrshire, Perth & Kinross, Argyll & Bute, East Lothian, East Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire and Falkirk. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of pattern here, certainly not one that can be explained by economic factors. If there’s any sort of pattern it’s that the bigger percentage falls have generally come in some of the areas with the highest historic rates of deferral, while smaller falls (or even increases) have come where rates were already low.

So the rate could be affected by a crackdown in some local authorities, of which we have heard a great deal lately. It costs councils money to have deferrals. Where the child is born in January or February, or where the council agrees to deferral for a child born in September to December, the council has to fund 475 hours of childcare. Edinburgh City Council say their pre-school funding is £1,550 per year. If Edinburgh had seen deferrals this year at the same level as at their peak, they’d have had 180 more children deferred – at a potential cost to them of around £280,000.

Across Scotland as a whole, the savings for councils could be up to £1.4 million.

I don’t know if that’s why councils are moving against deferrals, but it would be a meaningful incentive.

So there’s regional variation – local circumstances for local needs?

Local authorities provide education in Scotland, but it is very much a national system. Class sizes and social conditions apart, there’s very little difference between a school in Unst and one in Uddingston. Certainly, there’s very little difference in the age-appropriateness of the curriculum. Yet a boy in one is almost five times more likely to be deferred than in the other.

It’s hard to think of local circumstances that mean children from further north, or from more rural areas, would have much greater needs for deferral.

Why is there this big variation? The only meaningful work in Scotland on reasons for deferral of which I’m aware is a report for the Scottish Government from the Growing Up in Scotland series, on Early Experiences in Primary School.

This report said that “There were no significant differences in deferral by key parental socio-economic characteristics.” There are differences across the social groups on reason for sending, and some difference between discretionary and automatic deferrals. But overall, there is no evidence that could explain the regional variation found in this report.

Perhaps it’s historic, perhaps it’s cultural. But the explanation for the massive variance in deferral levels across Scotland is unlikely to be explained by educational or developmental reasons. In short, there isn’t likely to be a good reason for it.

Why does it matter?

So what does any of this matter? Well, if it’s the case that the youngest children in the year have generally lower exam results (and I’ll come to that in detail in more blogs soon), then children in areas with higher levels of deferral will have a better chance to get higher grades.

Impact on exam results

The Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) have very kindly supplied me with the results of Higher, Standard Grade and Int 2 exams for the past three years for a range of subjects, broken down by sex and by birth month. This allows me to look at the effect of age on exam results (and presentations for exams), and to compare deferred children with non-deferred children. I’ll do a full blog on what I find later. So far I’ve only had time to look at the Standard Grade exams from 2013, for English, Maths, Physics, Biology and History.

Let’s just take Maths for an example.

In last year’s Standard Grade Maths, the mean score achieved by all boys was 3.081. For boys born in March ‘97 – the oldest boys in their normal year group – the mean score was 3.002. Remember, lower is better – we all want 1s! For boys born in February ‘98 – the youngest in their normal year group – the mean score was 3.184. For January ’98 it was even worse, at 3.255. Comparing those younger boys with those who were deferred is even starker. Pupils born in January and February 1997 would almost all have been deferred. Those January boys scored 3.012, with the February boys getting 2.974.

Of course, I’m cherry picking the data. The girls’ results are similar, though the effect of age is a little less. The results are similar across the four other subjects, but these are not independent data – it’s mostly the same pupils sitting these exams.

Nonetheless, does anyone want to bet that we’re going to see a different pattern when I churn the numbers for the other exams and years?

For what it’s worth, the only report I’ve been able to find on the impact of birth month on exam results in Scotland was a 1994 report for the Scottish Exam Board, which the SQA very helpfully scanned and emailed to me, and which you can read here: SEB Research 4. It shows a very similar trend to the one I found, and I’ll publish full results of that soon.

And getting to the point…

Deferral levels are falling, and they vary hugely across the country. There’s no obvious educational reason for this. There’s some evidence from Scotland, and a lot from other countries, that deferral has a measurable impact on exam results. So the bottom line is that we’re probably letting the youngest kids down, increasingly, and with huge biases depending on where they will go to school.

1 thought on “More four years olds starting school, and huge differences across Scotland

  1. Stuart Cairns

    Excellent research. Quick question, why do you say March 1997 boys would be the oldest in the class? If the class has boys in birth months March back to the previous September, wont they be older?


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