An extra year in nursery is not part of the curriculum

More and more parents are choosing to defer their child's start at primary school. Marilyne MacLaren asks whether that is always wise

Educational practice can be a victim of fashion as much as anything else and there has been a recent trend which has seen an increase in the number of parents requesting to defer their child's entry to primary school.

This is done with the best of intentions and those intentions are understandable. Scotland has an earlier school starting age than most other European countries and some parents are concerned their child may be too young to start school and that their development might be harmed by transition at such a young age.

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In these times of child-centred education, "getting it right for every child" and curriculum for excellence, these presumptions need to be challenged. I have been indebted in my thinking on this subject to the hard work of one of Edinburgh council's child psychologists, Heather Gorton, and her analysis of 36 research papers written about delayed school entry. Her work has allowed me to take an objective and evidence-based view on what can be a fairly emotive subject.

As a policy maker, it's clear to me that with the introduction of curriculum for excellence, transitions for all pupils at all stages of education should be smoother and easier. In Edinburgh we've worked hard to ensure that a child's procession through education flows smoothly - there should be no abrupt start to life at the next stage. This is because the curriculum for pre-school and primary are developed and provided together as "early level" and there is a much more active approach to learning and teaching, which is both flexible and informal.

Of course age aside, in any given primary one class there will always be a spread of abilities and that is why it is so important to have an accurate picture of each child's learning capability and achievement levels before they make the transition.

This allows for appropriate steps to be taken to develop their learning. In the vast majority of cases progression to primary school is appropriate but occasionally another year at nursery will be recommended. In most cases it's not so much where a child learns but how a child learns and what they learn that is important.

One of my key questions to the child psychologist, to help me come to a policy position on this issue, is - can any harm come from deferring a child's entry to school? I have to confess I was a little surprised by what the research showed. A child's experience at home and their socio-economic and ethnic background have thirteen times more impact on how they do in school than their age when they start school.

Initially the eldest children in a school year may make faster progress but by the end of primary three this difference is no longer evident.

Children who have their entry delayed will reach the school leaving age of sixteen before completing all of their education.

Studies find that these children tend to drop out of secondary education earlier and, in some cases, it means that they can finish school without completing their exams. It's also apparent that some research found a higher rate of social and behavioural difficulties at secondary level amongst children who had their school entry delayed.

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Even children with additional support needs do not necessarily get any significant benefits from having an extra year in nursery.

I have become convinced that we should not be deferring a child's entry into primary one as a matter of course or just because the parents want it. The only reason for keeping a child for another year in pre-school would be because all the evidence points to the fact that it would be in the best interests of that particular child and that there was a clear indication of developmental delay.

Education theory and practice move on and primary one teaching and personalised learning mean that a young child's needs and talents can be developed and encouraged at the pace and level which suits them.

Through the implementation of curriculum for excellence it is much less a case of the child needing to be ready for school and more that schools are ready to adapt learning and teaching approaches to meet the needs of all children who attend, whatever their circumstances.

• Councillor Marilyne MacLaren is the education leader on Edinburgh City Council