This page was significantly amended on 12 February 2014 to correct my misunderstanding. Thanks to Schoolhouse for the advice. 

One of the main issues in our dispute with the school and council concerns deferring entry to school.

The law on school starting age is complex and very poorly understood – including by me until very recently – so I’ll explain it as simply as possible.

In a nutshell, your child does not have to start school until they are five years old, and you don’t need the permission of anyone to hold them back until then. Many schools and council will lead you to believe that, if they are born between the start of school in August and the end of December, you need their consent to defer them. This is not true.

Section 31 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 says that a child reaches school age when they reach five years old. Section 32 of that Act requires local authorities to set a “school commencement date”. This is invariably a date in August.

Section 32(3) says that a child who has not reached five years old by the school commencement date is deemed not to have attained school age until the school commencement date (i.e. the August) after they have turned five years old.

Another subsection of section 32 requires local authorities to set something called an “appropriate latest date”. This is invariably the end of February, and a child who hasn’t reached the age of five by this date may not start school in the preceding August.

Crucially, section 32(6)(a) says that though a local authority has a duty to provide education for a child who will turn five after August but before the end of February, there is no duty placed on the parent. This means that the parent of a child under five at the start of the school year doesn’t need to do anything to provide education for them – at school or at home.

So to be clear – any child who has not reached five years of age at the council’s school commencement date does not need to start school that year, and does not need to be home educated. That is your right as a parent.

What you do need permission for however is to get another year in nursery. Children born in January and February have a right to an additional year of nursery, and then to start school once they are five years old. Parents of children born in September to December may request an additional year in nursery, but this is at the council’s discretion. This is governed by Article 2 of The Provision of School Education for Children under School Age (Prescribed Children) (Scotland) Order 2002.

Information and statistics on deferral in Scotland can be found in the Scottish Government publication  Growing Up in Scotland: Early Experiences of Primary School. This shows that in 2012, 87% of children started school in the August when they were first eligible and 13% had their entry deferred. Almost half of the children born in January or February were deferred compared with almost no children whose birthdays were between March and August. And 15% of boys had their entry deferred, compared with 9% of girls.

For those born in December, like our son Andrew, 22% were deferred. This means that roughly 25% of boys with a December birthday were deferred.

The picture in West Lothian is very different. Here are the figures for December-born boys:

Percentage of December-born boys deferred in West Lothian
2013/2014          5.15%
2012/2013          2.20%
2011/2012          1.00%
2010/2011          9.02%
2009/2010          9.52%

West Lothian seems to have a policy against deferral, and they’re not alone. Over the past few months we’ve heard from lots of parents in East Central Scotland who are unhappy about their dealing with their council on deferral.

  • Two professionals, one senior, closely involved in the case of an autumn-born boy said he should be deferred due to issues such as delayed speech. The council said no.
  • The parents of a child born at the end of January deciding to defer in Edinburgh and the headteacher of the school, who had never met the child, trying to discourage them from deferring him.
  • Parents having to fill out loads of paperwork and having bureaucratic difficulties to defer a child born on 28 February.
  • Parents not being told that January and February-born children have an automatic right to deferral, and parents being put off exploring their options by being told they’d need to “fight” the council to get what is actually a right.
  • Children born towards the back end of the year but not deferred struggling at school in a way that suggests low confidence and maturity.

We’ve been told of other worse or similar situations to those above by professionals but we’ve not had permission to mention them here, even anonymously.

What we’ve learned is this: if you want to defer, don’t let the council put you off. Speak to people whose judgment you trust and who know your child, and get their opinion. And if your child is born in September to December, you want an additional year in nursery and the council say no, insist that they carry out a formal assessment and that you are provided with a report. If they don’t do it, complain. If they give you a report and you’re still not happy, complain. Remember, you probably know your child better than the school does.

So what age should children start school? In the UK we send our children to school earlier than most. England starts before Scotland, but they have a reception year. So they have a year more in school than Scotland, they leave school six months older, and they sit their key exams 18 months later. Every child is different, but the evidence seems to suggest that there are no advantages in starting earlier.

Here are school starting ages from around Europe:

Age Country
Four Northern Ireland 1
Five Cyprus 2, England3, Malta, Scotland4, Wales 5
Six Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark6, France, Germany, Greece7, Hungary8, Iceland, Republic of Ireland9, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg10, Netherlands11, Norway, Portugal, Romania12, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland13, Turkey
Seven Bulgaria 14, Estonia, Finland, Latvia 15, Lithuania , Poland 16, Serbia 17 , Sweden

(Source – Eurydice)

I’ll blog later about the evidence on school starting ages, but for now, consider this:

In New Zealand, several key investigations compared children who started formal literacy lessons at age 5 with those who started age 7. They showed that early formal learning doesn’t improve reading development, and may even be damaging. By the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups. However, those who started aged 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension than those who had started later.

New Scientist, November 2013.

Having or had a difficult experience with a school or council over a deferral? Please tell us about it in the comments section below, or privately through our contact form.  

3 thoughts on “Deferral

  1. Rod Grant

    Local authorities in Scotland, and particularly the one in Edinburgh, are currently encouraging fewer deferrals amongst our youngest pupils who are earmarked for going into Primary 1 in August. There has been a significant push in the last few years to make this an over-arching policy and it is, in my view, detrimental to far too many of our children. Considerable resource has been put in to calm parents’ fears of early entry but the rationale for such a move requires serious scrutiny.
    It would appear that those involved in pushing for fewer deferrals are doing so with the best interests of children at heart. You will hear officials saying that it can be psychologically detrimental not to be placed with one’s peer group, that schools should provide differentiated material for those who fall behind and that deferral can ultimately lead to being socially disadvantaged.
    These suggestions are the stuff of nonsense as this policy is quite clearly about saving money. The fewer children who defer the better, because the cost impact of providing nursery provision falls. When you take into account that funded nursery provision only comes into play the term following a child’s 3rd birthday then you can see the lack of sense in the policy. If a child’s birthday is in February, then a funded place in Nursery will only be available from April. This means, effectively, that the child has only four terms of nursery provision entitlement whilst those who are born in July will receive a fully funded six terms’ provision. So our youngest children are at the wrong end of a double whammy.
    Early years’ education in Scotland has always been widely respected because of its focus on entitlement, funded places and the personalisation of each child’s future education. In other words, Scotland has, until now, taken into account the individual needs of children and respected the wishes of parents. Those days are fast disappearing and it is to our educational disadvantage that they do so. Is it really the case that we want our youngsters to come out of school having just turned 17, because that is what this policy ultimately leads to?
    Scotland should once again put the interests of individual children ahead of financial considerations. Education is personal and we only get one shot at it – the parents of young 4-year-olds should not be ‘assertively encouraged’ into starting school early – after all, what exactly is the rush?

  2. Jennifer Jackson

    I Am looking for suppor to find out what my rights are or next step are, my daughter was born on 26th December 2014 4 weeks early. Myself nursery and health visitor are all in agreement that Georgia would benifit from another year at nursery but the deferment was declined I then appealed this with help from the nursery and my Local MP which was then declined again. What is the next steps for me to have this decision changed ?

    Jennifer Jackson

  3. Anna

    Hi. My son was born 23 November2015. He started nursery in January 2019 with very long time of settling in. After the summer holiday he still didn’t want to go to nursery and started to enjoy nursery more few months before lockdown. It only gives him a few months of the full nursery experience. I feel he is still emotionally and developmentally not ready to start primary school and the nursery teachers agree with me. We apply for defferal start and for additional year at the same nursery. In the application form there’s was also opinion from the nursery teacher. Council has not granted additional year in nursery. I can appeal from this decision but I don’t know what evidence I can provide as proof the additional year will benefit him. It seems decision makers don’t take into account the best interest of individual situation of the child. English is not our mother tongue. Also due to lockdown his social and language skills won’t progress. Thank you for every help.


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