Campaigners and politicians celebrated the School Age Bill passing its final stages at Stormont on Monday (1 March 2022). The new legislation will allow children who are young for year and some prematurely born children to defer their primary school start by a year. 

The legislation is expected to come into effect imminently and will allow children with a 1st April to 1st July birthday to commence primary school a year later than normal if their parents request to defer their school start. It will also permit premature birth children who, had they not been born prematurely, would have been born between 1st April and 1st July inclusive to defer their school start in the same way.

Roisin Gilheany from Omagh and Carla Kieran from Belfast are parents who have spearheaded the School Start Flexibility NI campaign alongside organisations NEU, Tiny Life and Twins Trust for over a decade.

Gilheany says:

“This is fantastic news. We have fought for this simple, common-sense measure for many years and it’s wonderful to finally see it become reality,” with Kieran adding, “My family member is now a teenager which shows just how long we have been working alongside officials to get this legislation across the line. I’m delighted that families will now have the option to begin school when they feel their child is ready.”

Alison McNulty , CEO of Tiny Life, stated:

“We are delighted that this Bill has passed  through the Assembly today. The option to defer starting school will significantly impact on the many premature babies  who are born too soon and simply not ready physically or emotionally ready to  go to school.”

Mark Langhammer, Regional Secretary of the National Education Union, commented:

“This is a pragmatic measure that will radically improve the lives of the small number of children and parents who will avail of it. Since the campaign started in 2010, we have been frustrated by the difficulties and delays experienced. At times, devolved government seemed incapable of this small step. So congratulations are due to Minister McIlveen for pushing this over the line.” 

Prominent online campaigner Belfast Mum, who’s prematurely born child is now aged 3 ½ will be amongst the first parents to be able to avail of deferral. She’s delighted that “no mother will have to sit in a maternity ward ready to deliver her baby and worry about them being too young for school.”

The Education minister has indicated that families of children due to start school in September 2022 will be able to apply to defer the upcoming school year. The legislation does not extend to every group which the campaigners had hoped would be included. Carla Kieran says, ‘School Start Flexibility NI intends to continue campaigning for the flexibility provision to be extended to children with suspected special educational needs, adopted and looked after children, and children whose first language is not English. The campaign would ultimately like a system which allowed discretionary deferrals, to be considered on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that every child whose best interests are best met by a later school start are catered for.

Northern Ireland is the only country in the world where children are required to start formal primary schooling at the age of four. In the Republic of Ireland, children can commence school at any stage between the ages of four and six. In Great Britain, children aren’t required to start school until they are five and laws allowing English Summer born children to defer their start have been in place since 2015.