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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 01 May 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Subject Choice, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Nursery Funding (Deferred Entry to Primary School)


Contents


Nursery Funding (Deferred Entry to Primary School)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15976, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, on the give them time campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the aims of the campaign, Give Them Time, which has been set up by parents in Coatbridge and Chryston and across Scotland to share their experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child to defer starting P1; understands that the campaign's national survey found that only 19% of parents knew about the legal right to defer children born between September and December, compared with 80% knowing that children born in January and February can be; notes the view that this demonstrates a need for further awareness raising; acknowledges the reported inconsistencies experienced by parents who wish to defer their children in terms of local authority responses and provision of nursery funding; notes that deferment should be the decision of the parent or legal guardian, and notes the call for local authorities to implement the law in Scotland as it stands and for them to support all parents who choose to defer their four-year-olds.

17:06  

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I thank my fellow members across all parties who signed the motion. I also thank the give them time campaign, some of whose supporters are in the gallery, for their tenacity in highlighting the issue of deferment for children who are four at the start of the school year and for their hard work and determination to ensure that those who choose to defer their four-year-olds are given the support that they deserve and should be entitled to. Any member across the chamber who is on Twitter will have had at least some contact with the campaign team.

I pay particular tribute to the campaigners from my constituency, Coatbridge and Chryston, who first raised the issue with me and invited me to the campaign launch event in Edinburgh at the end of last year. I express the campaign’s thanks to Maree Todd, who facilitated a meeting late last year following the launch, and to John Swinney for his responses to my questions in the chamber a month or so ago. Those interventions are very much appreciated by those in the gallery and further afield, and are regarded as crucial contributions in moving the debate to where we are now.

Give them time is not a political organisation, nor is it affiliated to any political party. The campaign has two simple principles and objectives. The first, as stated in my motion, is this: deferment of a four-year-old child should be the decision of the parent or legal guardian. It is that simple. That is the law in Scotland under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. It should be noted that, while individual members of the campaign have their own views, give them time is not directly involved in debates about the age at which a child should start school or what sort of early years approach should be taken, although I have had many positive conversations about the Government’s play-based approach. In its essence, the campaign is much more straightforward than that: a parent should decide whether their four-year-old should start school. There is no argument made by the campaign that there should be deferment for all four-year-olds as standard; indeed, far from it. There is a general consensus that a majority will continue to send their children when they are four, if eligible to do so.

Why is this an issue, if it is already law? Simply put, it seems that the vast majority of people in Scotland do not know that it is the law. A national survey carried out by give them time showed that, on average, 19 per cent of parents knew about the legal right to defer September to December-born children, compared to the more than 80 per cent who knew that January and February-born children can be deferred. Local authorities are clearly not highlighting that for children born before January, and there are examples even of staff who do not know the law on the right to defer.

I admit that I fell into that category. Until I met members of the campaign, I was not aware that children born between September and December could be deferred. I am in the position in which it will not impact on me anyway, as my children will be five and a half years old and five years and three months old respectively when they start school. However, it shows that there is a real need to highlight the issue more broadly. I hope that the Government, local authorities and MSPs who are here can work together to do that. That is the first aim of the campaign.

I will move on to the second aim and principle of the give them time campaign. We have established that, at present, if you decide to defer entry for a child with a January or February birthday, they will automatically be entitled to an additional year of funded pre-school education, which takes so much pressure off parents at what is a crucial time.

Unfortunately, for those children who are born between late August and December, the approach across local authorities to providing another funded year is not consistent. If parents choose to defer entry for a child with a birthday in that period, they will not automatically be entitled to another year of funded pre-school education. Parents can apply to their local authority for an additional year, but the place will be offered only at its discretion. That is ultimately holding many parents to ransom.

Families are often put through rigid, time-consuming and stressful processes that include collating information from various professionals such as the nursery, speech and language therapists, social workers, and many others, which uses up valuable time, resource and expense, only for a panel to then refuse the deferral request and for an appeal process to start.

A council panel rejecting the recommendations of those who are often its own professionals would seem to be somewhat ironic, but it does happen. Equality issues are also likely to be at the core of the appeal process, with more affluent families being able to put resources into challenging decisions, and ultimately getting more favourable outcomes on a more regular basis. That is not consistent or fair, and I am aware that my colleague Rona Mackay will pick up on some of those points in her contribution.

There are wide variations in how local authorities approach the additional year of funding. For instance, Falkirk Council is held up as an example of good practice. However, inconsistency on a matter of such importance as our children’s start to their formal education is not acceptable. It is totally against the very idea of getting it right for every child and of child-centred practice to even threaten to take a child out of provision in which their parents feel that they are safe and thriving—never mind carry out that threat.

It is those very experiences that led to the formation of the campaign. Parents and carers with similar experiences used the power of social media and the internet to come together and seek change. Improved consistency across the country is what we need and that is the second principle and aim of the campaign.

How might we go about achieving that? I encourage every MSP in the chamber to write to their local authority education department and ask that its policy be changed to one that ensures that all children whose parents choose to legally defer are given continued, funded nursery provision for that year. Considering the amount of investment and time that is going into the 1140 hours of free childcare and the relatively limited uptake that is predicted for deferment of late August to December-born children—around 1100 children it is anticipated—that should be a very achievable goal. Indeed, if we use data from the 2017-18 local government benchmarking framework, there may actually be a small saving for councils.

Helpfully, the give them time campaign will write to MSPs over the coming days with a template letter that members can use if they so wish. It will include information on encouraging councils to raise awareness of the right to defer and on changing the policy on funded nursery care.

However, it may be that councils are reluctant to change policy. Failing their willingness, I suggest that members write to their council leaders or group leaders, as appropriate, and ask them to introduce a motion to the full council.

I am pleased to say that in North Lanarkshire Council, SNP Councillor Allan Stubbs has made such a proposal, and I have been informed that a Fife councillor has done likewise. Those proposals, like the motion, are very much about a cross-party and non-party-political issue, and I would be surprised if any councillor of any persuasion would not back such a motion were it in front of them.

I also encourage the Government to raise awareness of the issue and further discuss with COSLA how consistency can be promoted Scotland-wide. I welcome COSLA’s response and briefing for the debate.

Finally, by having the debate, by raising awareness of the legal right to defer when a child is four, and by strongly encouraging councils to adopt a more child-centred approach to the issue through funded nursery placement that is in line with the Scottish Government’s progressive policies, we can make the necessary changes to ensure that the give them time campaign is a success and that no child in Scotland will ever be denied deferral if their parent or guardian has decided that it is the best thing for them. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask those in the public gallery to desist from clapping—or from booing, if they do not like what they hear.

We move to the open debate. I ask members to keep their speeches to four minutes, please.

17:15  

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I commend Fulton MacGregor for securing support to bring this important issue to the chamber for debate, and I join him in thanking the campaigners and congratulating them on the clear success that they have had in moving it up the political agenda. I also pay tribute to them for the broad consensus that they have built and for helping us, as politicians, to understand what is going on in our areas and what the legal position is.

Like Fulton MacGregor and, I suspect, many other members, I was surprised to find out about the huge variation that exists across the country. This is the third debate that I have taken part in in two days in which variation between local authorities with regard to education has come up. That variation is hard to justify, because parents have the same legal rights regardless of where in Scotland they live. When it comes to education, the legal expectations are the same for all young people. It is expected that decisions will be taken with the child’s best interests at heart, rather than on the basis of arbitrary policies. It is worrying that, in many local authorities, there seems to be a lack of understanding of what the law is and of what best practice looks like. It is also worrying that parents do not understand their rights. The fact that only 20 per cent of parents knew about their legal right to defer their child starting school should give us all cause for concern.

I was struck by a number of the quotes from parents in the briefing that was provided for the debate, which show that they were given no guidance and that they found the process bewildering. In almost all cases, parents are the leading experts on the education of their children and, as such, they should have had their rights respected and their case listened to, but that did not happen. They received no formal guidance or information and there was no communication with them. They felt that the decisions that were made were predetermined, despite their being made to jump through a number of hoops, which does not sound good at all. That is backed up by the views of many nursery teachers and people who work in early years.

The information that has come forward is surprising when we consider that many of the parents who are most affected by the issue are reluctant to cause a fuss—they would rather try to navigate their way through the system. They do not always want to speak out about the poor experience that they have had, because they are concerned that they might lose their funded entitlement.

As Fulton MacGregor has said, we must think about the impact that failure to defer has on the education of the young people concerned. I know that the minister has previously spoken out on the issue. If we do not get things right for children at the start of school and do not make sure that they are ready and equipped to go into the slightly more formal educational setting of primary 1, we will set them up for a difficult educational experience right the way through primary school and sometimes into secondary school, which will make things more difficult for them later in life.

Some of the issues that we are discussing are difficult to fix, and local authorities do not always jump just because members of the Scottish Parliament write them a letter, but I believe that there is a duty on all of us to push the issue and to make sure that parents and local authorities work together in the best interests of the child.

17:19  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am grateful to my colleague Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber and I congratulate him on enabling this important issue to be discussed.

When a child starts school, it is one of the most important milestones in their lives and those of their parents. Being sure that the time is right for that child is a hugely important decision that is never taken lightly. We know that children develop at different rates and that the early years are the most formative of their lives. That is why deciding on the right time for a child to start school is vital.

The concerns of the give them time grass-roots campaign group are transparency, awareness and—I would add—fairness. As Fulton MacGregor said, only 19 per cent of parents know about the legal right to defer the school start date of children who were born between September and December, but 80 per cent know that the school start date of children who were born in January and February can be deferred.

My son was born in December—albeit 23 years ago—and he went to school at the age of four and a half. I had no idea that he could have waited until he was five. No information was communicated, so I did not think about it. I am not sure whether the same rules applied then, but that is of no consequence. This is 2019 and parents should have all the important information available to them at such a crucial time.

On local authorities’ websites, the explanation of the process is, in the main, woefully inadequate. Some staff who advise parents on deferral do not even know about the legal right to defer the school start date of a child who was born between mid-August and December. That is not to blame the staff, as it is about the leadership of the council and appropriate training. It is incumbent on council officers to ensure that policy and legal information is easily available and easy to understand on their authorities’ websites.

My local authority, East Dunbartonshire Council, says that people have the right to apply for a deferral for children who were born between September and December, but it does not guarantee funding—only that the request will be considered by the early years community assessment team. That creates much uncertainty and anxiety for parents, and I intend to write to ask the council to look again at that policy.

That brings me on to an important point regarding equity and fairness. Local authorities’ processes for dealing with funding requests for the extra months of nursery vary widely and it appears to be another postcode lottery. Some authorities are much more likely than others to fund a further year of nursery for a child who was born between mid-August and December. Furthermore, when a further year’s nursery funding request has been rejected, some councils allow parents to finance a child to remain in a local authority nursery, but others do not. That is despite the fact that, if the nursery is not at full capacity, no extra cost to the authority should be incurred. That is where the question of equity arises. If an authority refuses to fund parents for the extra months, parents who can afford to pay will, more often than not, do that, but parents who cannot afford it have no choice. That does nothing to narrow the attainment gap that is the Scottish Government’s—and I believe everyone’s—priority.

Of course, as Fulton MacGregor stated, the process itself can be flawed. Decisions are often made by panels that consist of people who do not know the child involved, and the opinions and professional judgment of the people who know the child best, such as the early years staff and, of course, the parents, are often given little weight. The solution is that all children whose school start dates are deferred should have a further year of nursery automatically funded. That would level the playing field. As Fulton MacGregor said, we are transforming our level of early years care with record amounts of funding, so that should be achievable across the board in Scotland.

The Scottish Government believes in getting it right for every child. Let us all work to encourage local authorities to do the same.

17:23  

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am pleased to speak in the debate and I congratulate Fulton MacGregor on securing time for it. The motion is widely supported by members across the chamber, and I hope that the debate provides insight and maybe even some solutions to the situation that many parents face.

We have legislation in Scotland that is clear that a child does not have to start school until they are aged five. However, we also have the practice of children starting school at age four if their birthday is between school commencement and December. Parents whose child is four in January or February have the choice to defer their child’s entry. Through the give them time campaign, we hear that the policy is being applied differently by different local authorities and that some parents whose requests are accepted are not being provided with a nursery place for an additional year.

There are a number of issues. I exaggerated the word “defer”, but the legislation says that a child does not need to register with a school prior to their fifth birthday, so why is their entry seen as delayed when it follows the legislation? I also exaggerated the word “additional” when talking about an additional year at nursery, but the reality is that children who start school at four typically have the least time at nursery, because they start in the January that follows their third birthday. That means that they have one and a half years at nursery rather than two, so they are the youngest in the school year but have less pre-school education.

A parent could decide that they want to defer, having gone through what some describe as a bureaucratic and difficult assessment, only for the education authority to decide that it cannot support deferral. Although, legally, that child can still wait a year before starting school, the education authority does not need to provide what it sees as an additional year of nursery provision.

We should not forget that a child who starts school at the age of four will start high school at 11, when they will be almost a whole year younger than others at a challenging time in their education as they enter a period of exams, increased stress and adolescence. The debate about the high school starting age is as relevant as the debate about the primary school starting age.

I cannot help but feel that some of the tensions could be resolved if there was clearer information for parents—although I note that COSLA has briefed us that it has agreed to a consistent approach—and, importantly, if there was discussion at an earlier stage. When a child turns three and a parent is offered a January nursery place, there could be an initial discussion with the parents about options. Perhaps parents could be offered the opportunity to delay the start of nursery for a younger child until the August intake, so that they could receive two full years of nursery, as the majority of children do, and start school at the age of five.

A few years ago, we had the campaign for a January intake for three-year-olds, but that was principally because those children got only a year of nursery, given that they were admitted to school at the age of four. Parents could be given an informed choice as to whether to accept a January intake if it meant that their child would start school at four. There would obviously need to be a bit of flexibility, as a child’s development is not entirely predictable, but both parties would be more informed.

I recognise that this is not an aim of the give them time campaign, but there is a parallel discussion about the right age to start school. We have one of the lowest starting ages for formal education in Europe, and I am convinced that the age of four is too young. Many parents accept the situation because our culture puts that expectation on young children; because there is a lack of affordable childcare for parents and school can make working easier; because nursery does not meet the needs of all children; or because parents do not know that they have the right to defer.

There is a lot of evidence that children benefit from longer in a play-based setting where they learn important social and educational skills outside a formal classroom. Much is made of primary 1 being play based, but the evidence to support that is questionable—and that is before we talk about P1 testing.

I am always a supporter of a fairer funding deal for local authorities, but the issue does not appear to be governed by funding. In many cases, there is available space in a local nursery to enable nursery provision to continue. Parents should not have to self-finance, which excludes lower-income families from taking the decision to defer.

I support the provision of better information and more meaningful discussion for all involved in the decision. I support the aims of the give them time campaign and hope that the issues can be resolved.

17:27  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I thank Fulton MacGregor and the excellent give them time campaign, whose work has ensured that a fully transparent, consistent approach that puts the child at the centre of decisions to defer entry to primary school is being debated in the chamber this evening. I am wholly supportive of the campaign and its aims.

The campaign is necessary because too many families have experienced and are experiencing needlessly difficult and stressful situations that, despite the best efforts of all involved, can be very unsettling for parents and children. A child starting primary school should be a really exciting experience that everyone in the household looks forward to, but some of that excitement can be lost when there is a concern and a feeling that the child is being asked to attend school before they are ready.

The excellent briefing that we received from the give them time campaign noted that only 19 per cent of parents know about the legal right to defer children who were born between mid-August and December. Why is that the case? I was also astonished to learn that not all staff who work in the area are aware of that legal right. It just shows what happens when we do not know our rights. I give all credit to the campaign, because it has already succeeded in raising awareness of the legal right to defer. More people will become aware of it, and that is important progress, because if we do not know what our rights are, we cannot act on them.

Scottish Green Party policy is that children should start school at six, but I realise that we are not debating that this evening.

I appreciate that the primary 1 experience has changed to a play-based one, but we should remember that it still takes place in the school setting, where there are specific requirements and timings, the day is a certain length and the rules apply to everyone in the building. In Scotland, not all children of what is currently considered to be school age are ready for that experience, as the people who look after them closely will know. Therefore, let us do all that we can to ensure that people know that they have the right to defer school starting dates for children who are born between mid-August and December.

We know, too, that some local authorities are more likely than others to fund a further year of nursery for a child who was born between those dates. Across the country, processes for dealing with such funding requests vary. We have learned—Rona Mackay highlighted the point—that when a further year’s nursery funding request has been rejected, some councils allow parents to finance their child remaining in a local authority nursery, while others do not. Of course, some parents can afford to fund such an option, while others cannot. Such a situation is simply inequitable and, frankly, we cannot have it.

Members will know that I whole-heartedly support greater devolution of powers to local authorities, but when it comes to the wellbeing and education of our youngest citizens we must ensure that the very best practice is in place, is accepted and is available to all our children. The best practice is that all parents and carers know about the legal right to defer children’s school starting dates, and that all children whose starts are deferred automatically have a year of nursery funding. Implementing such practice must surely mean that we would be getting it right for every child.

Through the campaign’s briefing to members, we have heard about local authorities having issued generic letters of refusal. Such an approach does not consider individual cases; a template response, which consists of a uniform, cut-and-paste rejection, simply is not good enough.

I am running out of time, Presiding Officer, so I conclude by thanking the give them time campaign for its briefing. The point cannot be put better than the campaign does when it says:

“We want our children to thrive—not just cope.“

17:31  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I congratulate Fulton MacGregor on securing the debate and on doing so much to help the give them time campaign. However, the greatest congratulations must go the campaign itself, which, in a short time, has created very effective mobilisation. Like other members, I was not aware of the issue until it was brought to my attention by my constituents who had been caught up in decisions that had been made by my local council—with which I disagree. Some of those constituents are in the public gallery this evening.

The campaign has been a very effective user of social media and of direct communication with members of the Scottish Parliament. It has also produced a very clear briefing for the debate, so it has already done a great deal of good work.

Other members have described in some detail the key issues on deferral of children’s entry to school: the postcode lottery of decision making that exists and—prior to that—authorities’ very poor communication with parents and the low level of understanding that parents have of the possibility of deferral. However, there is a danger that we overcomplicate the picture. The core issue is that a national policy contradiction exists. It is right that we should press our councils to be more accepting of parents who defer their children’s entry to school. However, there exist two national policies that seem to contradict each other. One is that parents have a legal right to defer their child’s entry to school if the child is aged four. The other is that three and four-year-olds have a legal right to receive funded hours of early years education in nurseries. We all support those two policies. However, it makes no sense that a family’s exercise of one legal right takes away the other—that is not logical.

Mr MacGregor mentioned the replies that he and I received from John Swinney when we asked questions of him about the issue. If I am honest, I felt that the reply that I received was quite unsatisfactory, because Mr Swinney said that such decisions must be based on what is best for the child. He made it clear that what he meant by that is what is considered best for the child by professionals and, I guess, one of the panels of councillors that has been mentioned. However, the right to defer is an absolute right for parents—it is their decision.

Afterwards, I thought about the logic of Mr Swinney’s position. If he was saying that only the panel and the professionals can decide what is best for the child when it comes to funding for nursery, that is an argument for saying that they should also be able to decide on deferral. I do not think that that is what he was suggesting, as I think that he wants parents to be able to defer. The only logical position and solution is to change the law and to protect the right to defer and the right to funded hours at nursery. The issue of communication about the right to defer would still be there, but the issue about the postcode lottery and the process that families have been put through would disappear.

A legislative vehicle to do that should be coming up, because I think that we will have to legislate for the 1,140 hours entitlement. That would be a perfect opportunity to get us out of this illogical position and to give parents the right not just to defer but to have their funded hours at nursery. If the minister could tell us tonight that she will do that, that would be a tremendous success.

17:36  

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I, too, thank Fulton MacGregor for lodging his motion and securing time to debate this important subject.

As Alison Johnstone said, this stage in a child’s life can be one of the most stressful for parents and carers, even if not for the child, and making the right decision is not always obvious or easy. Parents can receive conflicting information and views on what is best for their child, but what is best for the child should be paramount and all aspects of the child’s development should be taken into account. As Rona Mackay said, that is absolutely what getting it right for every child is about and those principles must be adhered to by all local authorities.

The debate is about parents who want to defer their child’s entry into P1. My case was not yesterday, and it was the other way round. There are only 17 and a half months between my son and my daughter, who has a February birthday. The primary school was adamant that her entry should be deferred for a year, not because they had any evidence that Kirsty would not cope but because they had had a boy in the same situation in the previous intake who definitely had not coped. They did not want to repeat that experience, notwithstanding that girls at that age tend to grow up more quickly than boys. Kirsty had been going to a nursery on the days when I had council business and, more important, had been looking over her brother’s shoulder at the reading and writing that he had been doing. Eventually, with the nursery staff’s supporting comments, Kirsty was allowed to start school and, at the first parents’ evening, the school was gracious enough to admit that I had been right.

It was always in my mind that, at some later stage, Kirsty might struggle and have to repeat a year, which would also have had its difficulties. However, on that I was the one who was wrong. She did not need another year and is now the proud owner of a first-class honours degree in business management and French from the University of Glasgow and is working in Paris. I use that example to illustrate that there is not one size that fits all; GIRFEC must apply to every child and there should be no difference in schools or local authorities. There is no doubt that an extra year has crept into education over the years, but that is a debate for another time.

Before I close, I will mention the importance of smooth transitions. They are most often referred to in the context of the transition from primary to secondary, but they are important in all transitions, including the one from nursery to primary. The Scottish Youth Parliament and child and adolescent mental health services leads were looking at smooth transitions with regard to one of the actions in the mental health strategy, and the minister might be able to tell us how that is progressing.

As the ambitious roll-out of nursery provision to the same hours as primary school continues and the wonderful increase in play-based learning continues in nurseries and the early years of primary, I hope that give them time will become much less of an issue.

17:39  

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I am happy to speak in today’s debate on the give them time campaign. I, too, thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate to the chamber.

There are many problems in relation to childcare here in Scotland, but today is not an opportunity to discuss all of them; rather, it is an opportunity to talk about one of them. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 made it possible for parents to defer their child’s entry to the first year of primary school if the child is aged between four and five at the start of the school session. There are many reasons why parents might make that decision, but ultimately it comes down to a feeling that their child is not ready to enter school.

Parental choice is an important aspect of early years education and, as we have heard, that choice is limited in several local authorities. In many councils, an extra year of funded childcare is often granted along with such a deferral. That allows parents to continue living their lives as they wish.

Sadly, however, that is not the case everywhere. Some councils do not offer another funded year to parents, which means that the decision on deferring their child’s schooling is controlled by the family’s financial situation, not by parents’ choice to defer.

As we have heard, give them time is a grass-roots campaign that aims to get parents the legal right to an extra year of funded childcare for their child. As other members have pointed out, many councils offer an extra year of funded childcare on the basis of need. In my region, which is Central Scotland—in North and South Lanarkshire through to Falkirk—the picture is varied. Just slightly to the north, Stirling Council granted only about a quarter of requests last year.

That is the postcode lottery that we see too often in childcare. A parent residing in one council area can freely make a choice about deferral of their child’s schooling, while a parent in another authority has the shadow of costs hanging over them. The give them time campaign wants to eliminate that postcode lottery, so that all parents who are eligible to defer their child’s schooling can receive another year of funded childcare. It is not the child’s fault that they are born in a certain month, so why should they have to suffer and be pushed into school early because of where that month falls in the school year?

The give them time campaign has wide-ranging support. I am happy to have backed the motion for all parents to receive equity in treatment. However, that is only the first step. I have heard worrying reports that parents in Fife who wish to defer their children’s schooling and receive funded childcare are told that the provision must be at a council nursery. That is not in the spirit of equity, fairness or parental choice.

That echoes the problems that we have seen in the expansion to 1,140 hours of funded childcare: that private, voluntary and independent sector nurseries are excluded. Parents should be free to choose to defer their child’s schooling for a year, if they are eligible, without worrying about additional costs for childcare. They should be able to choose to have that childcare at any service that meets the national standard. They should not have to pull their child out of one nursery to send them to another. Therefore, in supporting the campaign, let us also commit to its principle of parental choice.

I reiterate that the need for equity and fairness was why the give them time campaign was founded. Let us ensure that that aim stays at the heart of our discussions.

17:43  

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, thank Fulton MacGregor for bringing the debate on an important campaign to the chamber. The level of cross-party support for his motion is testament to the importance of the issue. I also commend the give them time campaign, which operates in Coatbridge and across Scotland, for the work that it is doing to highlight the issue. I welcome its representatives to the chamber.

As has been mentioned, a national survey found that 80 per cent of parents were aware that children who are born in January and February have a legal right to have their school start deferred and to receive nursery funding, but that—by contrast—only 19 per cent of parents were aware that children born between mid-August and December also have that right. In addition to problems of awareness, there is, as we have heard, no guarantee of necessary funding for nursery.

Age remains the sole determinant of whether a child is ready to attend school, but the primary school starting age in Scotland is left over from the Victorian era—it has been the same since the Education Act 1872. Scottish children start school between the ages of four and a half and five and a half. As Claire Baker does, I have always thought that that is far too young. In many countries in Europe the starting age is six or even seven. The UK has some of the youngest school starting ages in the world.

In reality, a child’s readiness for school has more to do with their development than their age. Some studies suggest that children who begin their education later tend to do better academically in the long term—notwithstanding the example of my colleague Maureen Watt’s daughter. There are, of course, many reasons why a parent might wish to defer their child’s entry to primary school. The important thing is that the choice must be theirs—the point that Maureen Watt made—because they know their child best.

The significant regional variation in whether an application to defer entry will be accepted is also a matter of concern. There is clearly a need for a national standard to be set across all local authorities. Parents should have the opportunity to be involved in all decisions regarding their children’s education.

The process of applying for a deferral seems to me to be not fit for purpose. That is obvious from the testimony of concerned parents, many of whom are reporting the same issues, regardless of the fact that they come from different local authority areas. A number of parents have complained about a lack of involvement in the application process, and there have been reports of decisions being made by panels of senior staff members who have never met the children involved and have little prior knowledge of their cases. It is understandably frustrating for parents to need to seek the approval of health and education professionals only to have approval overruled by such panels.

The campaign has also highlighted the experience of parents who felt as though nursery and school staff were being encouraged to discourage them from using their right to defer. There are interesting quotes in the anonymous survey that was done. People talk about

“lack of communication from council”

and say that the system is

“Uninformative and largely predetermined.”

Probably the worst comment is that it is a

“Diabolical system, unfair and disappointing.”

No one understands the progress and development of a child better than the child's parents, so the decision should ultimately fall to them. The Government should support parents in making that decision—a point that was made strongly by Iain Gray. That is why I support the campaign’s proposal to ensure that staff who deal with applications are fully trained in parents’ legal rights, and that the information that is offered is clear and consistent. I am pleased that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities appears to agree with that in its briefing for the debate.

However, parents should not have to resort to funding their own places; it is important that deferred pupils have nursery places funded automatically. Otherwise, as Fulton MacGregor pointed out in his opening speech, there will be implications for access equality and there will be issues to do with poverty.

Although this is a serious matter for parents, I understand the financial constraints that local authorities have been working under in recent years. Of course, that might influence decisions, but that is another reason why it is so important for the Government to be proactive in helping to resolve the inconsistencies. As Iain Gray pointed out, that might well have to include the opportunity to legislate on the matter.

The campaign to give them time will no doubt continue. I look forward to hearing the minister’s views when she responds to the debate. Once again, I thank Fulton MacGregor.

17:47  

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

I thank Fulton MacGregor for raising this issue and supporting the parents involved in the campaign to improve information and awareness for all parents. I gather that many of the campaigners are in the gallery and I welcome them to the Parliament. It is really fine to see them here.

I met the parents from the give them time campaign in December and I appreciate that this is a very personal issue for many families. Of course it is important that they have the information that they need to make informed choices for their children.

I am pleased to confirm to Parliament that Scottish Government and COSLA officials have been working together since my meeting with the give them time campaign to improve the information for families around the deferral process. That includes changes to the information on the Scottish Government and Education Scotland websites to increase the clarity for parents and carers about their rights.

It is important to be absolutely clear about current policy. All children who are still four years old at the start of the school year can be deferred and can start primary 1 the following year. Those children with a birthday in January or February who defer school entry are automatically entitled to another year of funded early learning and childcare. Where a child’s fifth birthday falls between the start of the school year and December, parents can choose to defer entry to primary 1 and request a further year of funded early learning and childcare. It is then for local authorities to consider carefully any requests for additional funded early learning and childcare based on an assessment of the child’s needs.

As decisions about access to additional funded early learning and childcare for children whose fifth birthday falls between the start of the school year and December are a matter of discretion for local authorities, it is important that local authorities listen to the campaign’s concerns about parental awareness.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I am grateful to the minister for her words. Will she write to the 32 local authorities to encourage them to consider inquiries favourably and to report that there is a cross-party view in the Parliament that there should be funding for those children?

Maree Todd

As I said, since we met the campaign, my officials and COSLA officials have been working to improve the communication of parental rights, and I am more than happy to do whatever is required to improve that situation.

Where deferral is being considered, it is important that parents are provided with accurate information. Let me be clear: it is extremely important that parents are fully involved in the decision-making process, in line with guidance and the Government’s expectations around parental involvement and communication.

The Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 placed duties on local authorities and schools to involve parents in their child’s education, and good quality communication is an important part of that. Indeed, it is one of the key goals that the Scottish Government set out in “Learning together: national action plan on parental involvement, engagement, family learning and learning at home 2018 – 2021”, which was published last year.

Claire Baker

I welcome the minister’s comments on parental involvement. Are there any barriers with regard to the suggestion that someone should approach a family when their child is approaching three and have a discussion about the fact that the child will start school at four? At that point, the child could wait until the summer to start and so get two full years. Are there any problems with adopting that approach?

Maree Todd

That is certainly something that I am willing to explore. I thank the member for that suggestion and I will look into it.

If a local authority decides that it will not fund the additional year of early learning and childcare, it is important that parents understand the reasons behind the decision, and that they are reassured that, if they send their child to school, that child will get the support that they require.

Oliver Mundell made the point that this is the third debate in two days that has talked about variation among local authorities. There is undoubtedly a tension between central control and local discretion. I come from a part of the country where we really value that local discretion. I continue to believe that it is right for decisions about access to additional, funded ELC for children born between September and December to be made on a case-by-case basis by local authorities. However, I reiterate that parents should be fully involved in that decision making.

In this afternoon’s debate, we heard concerns from Rona Mackay and others about the attainment gap. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a priority for the Government. We believe that the expansion of funded early learning and childcare will make a real difference for Scotland’s children, and I know that local authorities are similarly committed to ensuring equity and excellence for all, and that they will continue to give full and careful consideration to requests for additional funded early learning and childcare for those children whose parents believe that deferral is the best choice.

We know the transformative impact that high-quality early learning and childcare can have, particularly for children from a more disadvantaged background. That is why we already provide an additional year of early learning and childcare to those two-year-olds who are likely to benefit most. Around a quarter of two-year-olds are entitled to extra, funded early learning and childcare, and local authorities have further discretion to support other two-year-olds whom they feel would benefit.

I state clearly that the Scottish Government believes that schools must be child ready, rather than children being school ready. In Scotland, we have taken the important step of fully integrating our early years and school curricula. The early level of curriculum for excellence deliberately spans early learning and early primary education. In response to some of the points that Alison Johnstone made, I say that, as a result of that collaboration, early learning settings and primary schools often work closely to help ensure a smooth transition. In many cases, that can mean that a play-based learning approach extends into the school years.

In fact, I have visited a number of schools where I have not been able to tell the difference between the nursery and primary one classes; for example, there were no desks in the primary one classes. As I have said, I also love to visit a nursery that is like the Mary Celeste because the children are outside playing. It is a real strength of our system that Scotland’s curriculum enables practitioners to introduce a play-based, child-centred approach throughout the learner journey and, specifically, to support the transition into P1.

Children who face the greatest socioeconomic disadvantage also benefit from the additional resource that is provided through the pupil equity fund. There are excellent examples of PEF supporting transition arrangements in early years, with funding being used for outdoor learning and for early years practitioners to move to the school or the nursery class, or for school teachers to move.

In closing—

Alison Johnstone

I appreciate that the minister is highlighting all the good things that go on when a child gets to school. However, the crux of the issue is that, in many circumstances, parents and carers feel that the child should not be in that environment. It concerns me that that right is there for some people, but that a child who is born one day earlier loses out on the funding, which just seems to me to be entirely unfair. I wonder whether the minister will address that?

Maree Todd

I understand Alison Johnstone’s concern. I have reiterated several times how important I think it is for the parents to be fully involved in the decision that a local authority is making about a child; as many people have said, those parents are the greatest experts on that child. The way forward that I advocate is for parents to absolutely be a part of the decision that is made about what is best for the child.

In closing, I thank Fulton MacGregor and the members of the give them time campaign, some of whom are in the public gallery. I know that the issue is very close to their hearts and I am more than happy to meet them again to continue our discussions. I also thank all the members who contributed to the debate.

Meeting closed at 17:57.