Starting reception at compulsory school age: our journey begins

It’s that time of year again, when my social media feeds over the last few weeks have been full of back to school photos, as well as a fair number of not back to school photos from the home educating families that I know. I’ve been asked a few times if the twins are starting at nursery soon. They’ll be going to a lovely little church hall playgroup next September, when they’re eligible for the 15 hours a week free childcare from the government. We don’t need childcare before that as my paid work fits around what time I get when looking after them, which is mainly a few hours at weekends and most Wednesdays when Tom or my parents are around. But when we get it for free, I’ll use that time to do more paid work (sewing) and voluntary work (slings and breastfeeding support).

At that point the twins will be 3 years 2 months old. We would like them to go to the playgroup for two years, until they go to school at 5 years 2 months old. I know lots of children in England start school when they’re 4 years old, including our eldest two who were 4 years 7 months and 4 years 10 months, but I’d like to explain in this blog post why I think starting school at 4 years 2 months old is not in the twins’ best interests and how we can change this.

In a nutshell, I think we start formal schooling too young in this country. Most of the rest of Europe don’t start school until 6 or 7 years old; until this age children learn though play in nursery/kindergarten type settings or at home. This is because children aren’t, on average, developmentally ready for formal learning until this age. Notice I did say “on average”, which means some are ready (much) sooner, some (much) later; that’s the nature of a normal distribution. We seem to be an anomaly here in England. I became interested in this when I heard about the Too Much Too Soon campaign having worked in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge (in a different department). Here you can find a summary of the evidence they found for not starting formal learning at age 4: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence

So why did our older boys start reception class aged 4? Well first there was Andrew, the child who was clearly way above average in terms of his development in all areas including emotional, social and academic. He went to a lovely play-based daycare nursery with his free 15 hours for the year before school. It was there where they picked up on his exceptional abilities – for example, he could tell the time aged 3, just because he’d been curious and learned it from real life with us before nursery, and would tell the staff when they were due to go on breaks! I never had any doubt that he would thrive at school, and he always has. 

And then there was Joel, who thankfully has an October birthday, meaning he is one of the oldest in his class. Although I had more reservations about whether Joel would suit school, because he wasn’t as emotionally, socially or academically as developed as Andrew had been, at least he wasn’t long off 5 when he started reception. Furthermore, by the time we needed to consider whether to send him to school, we’d experienced over a year of the fantastic learning environment at Bournville Infant School (now Bournville Village Primary School after the infants and juniors merged). I was very impressed with how playful the reception class was, with most of the day spent outdoors, very little formal structure, hardly any tables in classrooms as they didn’t expect them to sit at them to learn etc. Even the transition to year 1 was gentle, with still a lot of play-based learning and no pressure of anything like homework. The Cadburys founded the school, and their ethos of letting kids be kids (rather than sending them out to work in those days) is still apparent today. We felt that considering the constraints of the education system that the school is in, formal learning wasn’t really starting until later in year 1, by which point Joel would be 6 and a half. So we tried it, and actually he’s thrived at school so far too, particularly the social aspect of it. He’s just started year 2 aged nearly 7. I don’t think he would have coped with this had he been any younger than he is. If he’d have been born just a couple of months earlier, there is no way he would have coped, let alone thrived, in the school year above.

So why will the twins not start reception aged 4? Essentially it comes down to the fact that their birthday is in June. The chances of them both being exceptionally above average in all areas of development at just turned 4 are pretty slim, and I wouldn’t want one to start school without the other as I think that could cause issues between them later on. Even at a school which doesn’t press ahead with formal learning very quickly, being summer born means they would be starting it younger than age 6, and our experience with Joel suggests this could all go horribly wrong for them. My own experience of being summer born, so starting school at just turned 4, also comes in to this. I never struggled academically – I left school with straight As at GCSE and A-Level, and went on to achieve a first class bachelors degree, a masters degree and a PhD. But emotionally I don’t think I coped well, and my mental health was poor when I left school. However, it’s precisely because the twins are summer born that we now have the chance to do things differently.

The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17 states that “the parents of a summer born* child may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their fifth birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1.” (* Summer born is defined as born between 1st April and 31st August.) And actually compulsory school age (CSA) in this country is 5 years old anyway. Even though in practice most children start reception aged 4, this is not compulsory, and of course parents have the legal right to home educate once CSA is reached. Prior to the current admissions code, parents didn’t have the right to request a CSA reception start, they just had the right to skip reception and start their child at CSA in year 1 – which we still have, but I never really understood why that helped at all. Starting reception in September at CSA isn’t a deferred or a delayed start (this means a start part way through reception year such as after Christmas or Easter), rather it is referred to as a deceleration or an admission out of the normal age cohort.

So this all sounds straightforward to me, what’s the catch? Well the hard part comes (or may come) in getting our preferred school(s) to agree to our request for a CSA reception start. The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17A states that “[a]dmission authorities must make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned. This will include taking account of the parent’s views; information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional; whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group; and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely. They must also take into account the views of the head teacher of the school concerned. When informing a parent of their decision on the year group the child should be admitted to, the admission authority must set out clearly the reasons for their decision.” It is our right to wait until CSA (5 years), but ultimately the admission authority decides whether the child goes in to reception or year 1 at that point, having considered the parents’ request for a reception start, and the authority must detail why they think reception or year 1 is in the child’s best interests.

The admission authority varies for each school. We have 4 primary schools about half a mile from our house in different directions: one is an academy, so the authority is the academy trust; two are voluntary aided schools, so the authority is the governing body; one is a community school, so the authority is Birmingham City Council. Basically it will depend on who out of all these people agrees with us that a CSA reception start is in the twins’ best interests and is therefore happy to grant our request on the sole basis of birth date, since we have no other factors such as special educational needs or prematurity involved. We do have sibling priority at Bournville Village Primary School, but if they are not willing to grant our request, we are not averse to trying the other three schools, particularly because Andrew will start secondary school when the twins start reception at CSA. If none of these schools agrees with us, we will probably home educate them for a while until we are happy that they are ready for formal schooling. But that’s a bridge to cross once we’ve gone down the route of requesting a CSA reception start first. 

For me it’s not just about them being ready for reception at just turned 4, because actually I think they’d probably cope if not thrive (the latter being the thing to aim for) in BVPS reception class. It’s about them being ready for the transition to year 1 at just turned 5, and the transition to year 3 at just turned 7, and the transition to year 7 at just turned 11, and doing GCSEs aged 15 and A-levels aged 17 etc. It’s about their whole school life ahead of them. I personally think there’s far more risk involved in the potential long term negative consequences of sending them to reception aged 4 years 2 months than there is risk in sending them to reception aged 5 years 2 months. I can only see benefits of waiting that year. So they will finish school aged just turned 19? That doesn’t seem to have caused any of my German friends harm. What’s a year in the scale of a lifetime? 

This blog post is the first chapter in documenting our journey of the twins starting school. It may be that all goes smoothly and there isn’t much to write home about, but we may have challenges. I want to document it to raise awareness of the rights we have as parents in terms of our children’s education, but rights which aren’t very well known or talked about. I’ve already found lots of support in the Flexible School Admissions for Summerborns Facebook group, which I would recommend joining if you’d like to find out more from parents who have been successful in or are applying for a CSA reception start. Watch this space for more updates in future.

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4 thoughts on “Starting reception at compulsory school age: our journey begins”

  1. I will follow your journey with interest, Ruth. I have 2 summer born (August) children and my youngest was born the first week of September. My eldest struggled socially in reception but excelled academically and still does (age 11). My “middle child” excels socially and “copes” academically. The youngest with physical delays excels both socially and academically. She was born the first week in September. I don’t think I would be saying the same if she was in year 3 now as opposed to year 2 had she been born just 72 hours earlier!

    1. Thanks for following 🙂 Always good to hear that I have readers on the blog. Of course we all have to do what’s right for our own kids. For me, fundamentally it comes down to my political view of England’s education system. Given the evidence I’ve seen, I think other European countries understand what’s appropriate for development better than here. And if this very system now allows me the chance to change things in a way I view as progress, I’m more than happy to go with it. If nobody were to challenge this, nothing would change.

  2. I can’t thank you enough for writing this Ruth! I am in turmoil at the minute about how to go about things with my boys. I am looking forward to following your journey, my boys were born 25th Aug at 28 weeks gestation so had they not been premature would have been in a different school year to the one they will be in now if we start them aged 4. I have conflicting advice been thrown at me and I just don’t know what to do. I also have a stubborn husband who is pretty adamant they should be starting reception aged 4, when they’ll have only been 4 for a week or so. Anyhow I look forward to reading more. X

    1. You’re welcome! It’s good to hear when others find what I’ve written helpful. I think with that much prematurity involved and so close to the 31st August cut off date, you would have a very strong case to put to head teachers and admission authorities. The Facebook group is a fantastic resource, and there have been several posts from people whose partners don’t agree with them wanting to apply for a CSA reception start, with suggestions on how to decide as a couple what’s best.

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