No two children are the same.

There are different personalities, different support needs, and development happens at different rates.

Balancing these differences is one of the major responsibilities of parents and teachers to ensure young people can get the most out of their school experience.

And one of the biggest decisions is also the earliest: when to start school?

Most children begin school between the ages of four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half. But the calendar year, academic year and children’s birthdays don’t always line up perfectly.

Read more: Deferred entry for P1 pupils in Scotland doubles following campaign

Children who are still four on the day they would start primary school have a legal right to postpone their start until the next year.

But parents have not always been able to take advantage of this right, because councils couldn’t guarantee an extra year of nursery care. In some cases, the funding was available but councils either refused it or parents struggled with a confusing process.

Thanks in large part to a grassroots campaign called Give Them Time, that changed last year. Now parents can rest assured that deferring their child doesn't mean a gap in early learning.

So what is deferred entry, who can apply, and how does it work?

Deferred entry

Deferred entry simply means delaying a child’s move to P1 by one year. According to the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, no child is legally required to start primary school until the August after they turn five years old.

This means that parents of a child who is still four years old on August 1, 2024 have the option to delay their school start until August 2025.

What are children entitled to if they defer?

Thanks to the efforts of campaigners from Give Them Time, parents who decide to defer entry are now guaranteed continued nursery care until their child enters P1.

Before a new law that came into effect in 2023, only children born in January or February had this guarantee.

In the case of older children, born between August 1 and December 31 of an academic year, local authorities were able to decide whether to offer an extra year of nursery.

Why do some parents choose to defer?

Primary schools are not uniform in their P1 delivery, especially when it comes to delivering play-based learning.

Give Them Time discovered this during their years of campaigning. Through a series of FOIs, they found that the use of play-based learning varied widely at schools across the country.

They used this to argue that nursery – which guaranteed a play-based, developmentally-appropriate early learning environment – was the best place for children who their parents didn’t feel were quite ready for school.

“School readiness” is determined by a variety of factors, and it is a question that has caused tension between parents and ELC providers due to its subjectivity.

In discussions with parents, Give Them Time found that nursery teachers would consider a child 'ready' for school when their parents disagreed. Parents who defer often expressed concerns about their children coping with the formalities and expectations of primary school.

Give Them Time recommends speaking directly to your ELC provider, and visiting the primary school your child would be attending.

How do I defer my child’s entry?

There is no legal requirement to inform your local authority that you wish to defer your for-year-old. But it is important to notify the council or ELC provider that you will need to continue with another year of nursery.

Give Them Time recommends contacting your nursery for more information and notifying them of your intention to defer by the autumn of the year before they would start school.

In most councils, parents register for primary school in the January before they would start P1. This is the time to indicate that you are deferring, which will help the council track numbers for incoming P1 and nursery placements.

Councils will have a deferral form to formalise your decision and register your child’s next year at nursery.

Check with your local council for the specific dates and the process for referral. Give Them Time’s Facebook page and website, and the Deferral Support Scotland Facebook Group have more resources on specifics for each local authority.

Many councils still use language describing this process as an “application”, but Give Them Time reminds parents and carers that this is not the case: By submitting your deferral notice, you are registering your child for an extra year of nursery which the local authority legally cannot refuse.