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School Age Bill passed to allow greater flexibility on school starting age in NI

A Bill which will give Northern Ireland ‘one of the most progressive approaches to school starting age in the world’, passed its Final Stage today.

The School Age Bill will allow greater flexibility for parents in deciding when their child starts school.

Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen said:

“This is a good day for parents and children as my School Age Bill has passed its final stage in the Assembly.

“Northern Ireland has been in the unusual situation of not offering any degree of flexibility in regard to the age at which children start school. My Bill gives real choice to the parents of many thousands of children born in April, May and June each year and now also to premature children who would have been Young for Year if born at term. No longer will any child in Northern Ireland be required to start school a year earlier due to their premature birth.

“This package of reform represents the biggest change in our approach to school starting age in many decades. The first years of life lay the foundations for future development and this Bill will ensure that the very youngest members of our society are supported to fulfil their potential.”

The Department will now be working closely with the Education Authority to ensure arrangements are in place for those children who wish to defer pre-school or primary school in September 2022.

Concluding, the Minister said:

“I want to thank Assembly members, the Education Committee and all those groups such as Tiny Life, parents and individuals for their support in progressing this important legislation.

“This change is unprecedented in its scale and scope and will transform the lives of many children in the years ahead.”

Currently, children in Northern Ireland who turn 4 on or before 1st July start primary school at the beginning of September that year.

Children turning 4 between 2nd July and 31st August will not start primary school until the following year when they are 5 years old.

This means children born in April, May and June are the youngest in the school class, starting school a few months after their fourth birthday. These children are sometimes known as Young for Year children.

The key objectives of the School Age Bill include:

  • Flexibility for children born between 1st April and 1st July (including premature children due to be born after 1st April) to commence primary education in September following their fourth birthday, or alternatively, on parental request, to defer entry to primary school until September following their fifth birthday

  • Deferred children do not reach the lower limit of compulsory school age until after their fifth birthday.

  • Amending the definition of the upper limit of compulsory school age for those children who choose to defer entry to primary school so that they will continue to receive 12 years of compulsory education, like all other children. This means deferred children will not leave education at the end of Year 11 mid-way through their qualification courses.

  • Amends the regulations for pre-school admissions to facilitate deferral of pre-school education. This means parents of children born between 1st April and 1st July can choose for them to attend pre-school in the school year following their fourth birthday. This will allow deferred children to access pre-school immediately before commencing primary school and provides important continuity of early years’ education.


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