A Christmas Countdown to Equality? – Patricia Anderson

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The Give Them Time campaign – for a further year of nursery funding for ALL children deferring primary one start in Scotland – has a lot to reflect on this Christmas. 

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

It evolved from a Facebook Group set up in May 2018 for parents to share their experiences of applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding for their four-year-old for their deferred year before starting school. 

The aim was to provide clarity on the legal right to defer and to put parents in touch with one another so they didn’t feel they were alone in pursuing continued nursery funding for the extra year. However, from parents sharing their experiences it emerged that many felt there was a lack of transparency, consistency and child-centred approaches to deferral funding across the country.  Within a month the campaign was established and the Facebook group now has nearly 600 members. 

Its popularity serves to underscore the strength of feeling on this issue and just how many parents across Scotland are affected by it. Many post questions about their rights as the jargon of ‘discretionary deferral’ in the legislation and used by local authorities is misleading. 

PLAIN ENGLISH PLEASE

For the record, any child who has not reached the age of five by the school commencement date set by their local authority (invariably in August), does NOT need to start primary one until the following year’s school commencement date. This is governed by the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, 32 (3). A ‘discretionary deferral’ refers to each local authority’s ability to provide or deny funding for a further year of nursery for such mid-August to December born children whose parents want to defer them.  This phrase is ambiguous as it implies that the legal right as well as the funding is at each council’s discretion rather than just the funding. We have even seen communication from councils which refers to the council ‘granting a deferral’ which only perpetuates this confusion. How many parents have looked into the possibility of deferring their child in the past and misunderstood their legal right due to this ambivalent term?

PARENTS VS LOCAL AUTHORITIES

Sadly, if a parent does find out about their legal right and pursues the continued nursery funding, the current system sets them up against local authorities as both are simultaneously empowered to be make a child-centred decision. This can take many months and cause families anxiety and stress as they don’t know if what they believe is in the best interests of their child will be viable if they have to finance it themselves or if they will even be able to keep their child in the same nursery if funding from the local authority is discontinued.

The Scottish Government’s new Learning Together National Action Plan wants to improve parental involvement and engagement in schools and early learning and childcare settings.  Goal C is to improve communication with parents and families. But parents need to be able to trust what they are told by early years staff and local authorities as accurate in order for any genuine collaboration to ever take place. Also, the current processes for assessing so called ‘discretionary deferral’ funding requests undermine parents as the very existence of such  processes creates tension and mistrust as they question parents’ judgement.

EQUITY ISSUES

Our research (including responses to Freedom of Information Requests from local authorities) has flagged up other inequity issues and the campaign seeks to highlight these too:

  • At least eleven of Scotland’s thirty-two local authorities do not allow parents to finance a continued place in a local authority nursery when they refuse to fund the extra year. How is it child-centred to force a child out of a local authority nursery and into a private nursery for their final year before school when the local authority refuses to pay for it?
  • Seven local authorities have funded 100% of such requests in recent years whereas others have funded less than 50% showing that continued nursery funding is quite literally a ‘postcode lottery’ at the moment.
  • In Sep 2018 Falkirk Council changed its policy so that going forward any parental request to defer a Sep-Feb born child will be automatically funded with no questions asked. 
  • Some local authorities have quick and simple application processes whereas others require myriad professionals to be involved, some of whom have never met the child, to judge. How is this child-centred?
  • Sep-Dec borns being deferred have already had less nursery time than any other birth month of child. Reform Scotland’s 2017 “Early Years Lottery” Report highlighted this “continuing birthday discrimination which means some children are entitled to almost a year’s less early years education than others”. 
  • The current system disadvantages those who cannot afford to finance a further year of nursery as those who can afford it will pay for it.

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN

This month we are encouraging everyone who shares our concerns about these issues to use the template letter on the campaign website to write to their local councillors and the education committee convener in their local authority to ask for all children being deferred to be automatically guaranteed another year of nursery funding, not just Jan/Feb birthdays. There are 24 local authorities which need to change their practices in order to do this and hence our Christmas Countdown call to action. We don’t offer chocolate or a picture of Santa each day, but we do offer hope that things can improve.

If we truly want Scotland to be the best place for children to grow up and if we want to reduce disadvantage and increase parental involvement, then every local authority has a moral obligation to automatically fund all deferrals from now on.   

We’ve got Christmas sorted but for more information on our New Year’s resolutions go to Give Them Time or follow us on Twitter @GiveTimeScot. 

Patricia Anderson is a campaign spokesperson for Give Them Time