Peter Reilly: There are times when parents know best

As I was lingering at the lingerie section of Primark – waiting, I have to say, for a female friend at the customer care desk who was returning a size ten dress she’d almost burst as she attempted to squeeze into it – a pair of orange-faced WAGettes couldn’t find the desired colour of underwear they wished to purchase.

Exasperated, one of the drama queens, with killer heels and a backcombed bouffant, said: “This is ma worst nightmare!” Admittedly, it’s only anecdotal, but most of my terrifying dreams usually involve dying a horrible death or standing at an altar, renewing wedding vows with my ex-wife. Nightmare in High Street Primark just doesn’t scare me.

In Edinburgh, some parents are experiencing the horror of falling victim to the council’s policy on deferred entry to P1. Youngsters whose birthdays fall between the first day of the autumn term and 31 December can have their start to primary education deferred for a year at the discretion of the local authority – those born in January and February receive automatic deferral. This year, Edinburgh city council rejected 61 per cent of deferral applications, compared to just 46 per cent last year. The council-refusenik-in-chief, education leader Marilyne MacLaren, claims that the Curriculum for Excellence means “it’s much less the case that a child needs to be ready for school”. In other words, P1 is merely a continuation of nursery school. Hmmm …

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Nursery school used to be happy places where wee girls played in sand pits and plastic-hammer wielding little boys determinedly endeavoured to knock square pegs into round holes.

These days, the tots are expected to read books on their own; pushy parents complain if their issue is unable to read Tolstoy by the time he can get himself in and out of his romper suit.

We are almost the only country in the developed world with a school starting-age of five (only mighty Malta and the Netherlands share our desire to ship off kids to school as soon as they have stopped bedwetting). In eight member nations of the European Union, compulsory education begins aged seven: in some US states, a child begins elementary education at eight.

For some local authorities, such as Edinburgh, four is the new five. Astonishingly, the council confesses awareness of research that shows these underage pupils do not make the same progress as their older classmates. However, all’s well that ends well because, as the authority says, this disparity usually irons itself out by the close of P3. Yes, after three years of primary education, an immature learner can kick away his stool, come out from the corner of the classroom and set fire to his dunce cap.

A child should only make the transition from nursery to primary when he/she is able to cope with the huge changes such a move entails. Although his fifth birthday was in May, I felt my youngest son lacked the maturity to start primary school. Severe psychological trauma he experienced as a baby and toddler had hindered his development.

AGED five, he was attending speech therapy sessions and lacked social and emotional intelligence. My local authority and the primary school were cognisant of his condition and, understandably, were initially reluctant to accept him. Fortunately, a friend of the family taught in the establishment and volunteered to teach my son in her infant class. It could have been a disaster but thankfully, much to my relief, over the course of a few months his problems largely disappeared.

His case may be extreme, but there are many parents who worry their children are unprepared to start school before five candles have burned brightly on the birthday cake. Their view that their offspring should start compulsory education at a later date deserves the same respect as that of mothers of four-year-old kids who demand primary schools accept their toddlers to allow mum to return to full-time employment.

For me, it’s a nightmare when the wishes of a council bureaucrat override the wishes of supportive parents.