Row over funding requests for Primary One deferrals

Wednesday February 19th 2020

East-Lothian-Council

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Marie Sharp

Angry parents have branded a council’s attitude towards delaying their children’s schooling “antiquated” as they face paying thousands of pounds for private nursery places.

East Lothian Council had the lowest record of any local authority in Scotland when it came to approving funding requests for Primary One deferrals for children last year.

Only 42 per cent of parents who applied for the discretionary funding were approved – half the national average, with the majority of local authorities funding 100 per cent of applications.

The statistics were published by the Give Them Time campaign, which wants all four-year-olds to be funded to stay in nursery, through Freedom of Information requests.

Current legislation allows parents of children who are born in January and February to automatically receive funding for a delay in starting Primary One until they are five years old.

Parents of children born between August and December, who would also start school aged four, can also defer their primary one start for a year but the council can refuse to pay for their nursery care.

East Lothian Council received 19 requests for discretionary funding last year and approved just eight of them, even though 15 were for children born in December – just days before the cut-off date.

The local authority agreed last year to review its policy but the then head of education Fiona Robertson, who is now head of Midlothian education, said that would not start until 2022.

Councillor Stuart Currie, leader of the SNP Group on the council, said the delay in review was not acceptable for parents, adding: “It is quite clear that this policy needs to be reviewed.

“Quite why that should wait until 2022 just doesn’t make sense.

“Reviewing the policy now would be the right thing to do.”

Parents in East Lothian say attempting to gain funding for discretionary deferrals has proved “extremely stressful”, with one mother saying she was reduced to tears at her nursery after weeks of battling to meet the council’s demands.

She said: “We were given the very clear message that our views as parents were at the bottom of the pile, and that the opinion of a handful of professionals, none of whom had ever met our child, were Gospel.”

Another mother going through the process of applying for her child, who missed the deadline for automatic deferral by one week, said: “There are so many hoops to jump through and paperwork to submit, you need a degree to apply.

“They say there is no money but how are other council’s managing to fund it?

“The number of applications in East Lothian is not so high and if it is down to funding, are we sacrificing these children on the altar of their budget?”

Leading the voices of parents in East Lothian is Antonia Hamilton, whose youngest daughter Frances, at just two, is also an end-of-year baby.

Antonia lives in North Berwick and is part of the Give Them Time campaign.

She said: “As parents, we know our children best. My daughter will be deferred for a year whether we have to self-fund or not, but for parents who cannot afford to pay for a private nursery place, it discriminates against them.”

Parents estimate self-funding can cost up to £6,000.

Last year, 18 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities approved all requests for discretionary deferral funding from parents.

East Lothian is also one of 12 councils which refuse to let parents who can self-fund for an extra year keep their child in a council-run nursery. This means some children have to move to a new nursery away from friends.

Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign said: “East Lothian Council’s startlingly low rate points to an unacceptable culture of resistance to fund these.

“Parents know their children best and it is their legal right to choose to defer them if they will still be four at the school commencement date.

“East Lothian Council is effectively stripping parents of this right when they forcibly remove their child’s continued nursery place.”

Iain Gray, East Lothian MSP, led a motion by Scottish Labour in Holyrood last September calling for funding for all four-year-olds to be provided and Scottish Government Minister Maree Todd MSP pledged to change the law in 2021.

Mr Gray defended the council’s position, insisting it was following the law.

He said: “I understand the frustration felt by parents. It is simply unfair that parents can choose to defer their child’s entry to P1 but then find that nursery funding is at the council’s discretion.

“I have asked the council to be more flexible, but the truth is that they are implementing the law as it stands – it is the law which is at fault.”

A spokesperson for East Lothian Council said its guidance for discussing deferrals focussed on the “key aspects of the child’s development and learning”.

They said: “Requests are considered by a professional panel which reviews the appropriate evidence on an individual basis.

“Following the full implementation of the 1,140 hours Early Learning and Childcare for all three and four-year-olds, we will be reviewing our guidance on deferred entry to primary school.

“Our nurseries and schools work in conjunction with families to help our children be ready for school.”

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