Twice as many children have deferred entry to Primary 1 since 2018, and statistics suggest that a campaign to protect parental rights has sparked the change.

Deferred entry is a legal option for parents who feel that their child needs an extra year of nursery before starting primary school.  

Every parent is entitled to deferred entry if their child is still only four at the start of the school year.

Deferred entry also means young people are likely to need an extra year of nursery, or some other early learning and childcare. Although parents can defer without taking an extra year at nursery, almost 99% of deferrals do.

But for years, many parents who wanted to exercise their right to deferred entry hit a roadblock: Their council was willing to defer their child’s first year of primary school, but refused funding for an extra year of nursery.

The early learning of thousands of children every year depended on such decisions.

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In 2018, 4,884 children deferred entry to P1.

That was higher than in 2013, when there were 3,724 deferrals, although it still only represented 17% of eligible children.

But in each of the last six years, the number of deferred entries has increased. By 2023, that number had doubled to reach 8,554 and now more than one-third of pupils eligible for a deferral have received one.

Up until August of last year, those more than 8,000 pupils were not guaranteed placement in a nursery.

A new law that took effect in August changed that.

Parents of eligible children are no longer “applying” for a deferral, they are simply informing their local authority and ELC provider that they will be opting in for another year of nursery.

That new law, and the protections it offers, are the product of years of work by a grassroots campaign called Give Them Time.

Campaign claims victory

Diane Delaney and Patricia Anderson launched the Give Them Time campaign in 2018.

Through dozens of Freedom of Information requests to local councils, and regular conversations with MSPs, parents, nursery providers and local schools, Give Them Time sought to raise awareness of the right to deferral.

Ms Anderson said that what they learned from councils also gave them ammunition that they needed to show the government that starting P1 or continuing in nursery wasn't the same experience for every child.

"The FOI requests really helped us argue that deferral and a further year of nursery would definitely provide a play-based, developmentally-appropriate early learning environment, whereas the chance of your child’s school offering a play-based approach to P1 was a postcode lottery.

Driven by their own family circumstances, they set out to inform parents about their right to a deferral. They also sought to break down resistance from councils who were regularly rejecting deferrals because they refused to fund an extra year of nursery.

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Both Ms Anderson and Ms Delaney deferred their children, but met with mixed results. For Ms Anderson, one of her children received a deferral with no difficulty. 

When she wanted to defer her daughter, born in the autumn, she thought at first that she would not be allowed. It was only by chance that she learned she had a right to deferral.

"The relief was amazing, but then it turned to anger.

"I was working as a teacher myself, having already deferred a child, and thought I was informed - yet didn’t know children born between August and December could also be deferred, or that the right had existed since 1980."

The campaign quickly drew support from the former Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie, Connect parents’ group, The National Parent Forum of Scotland, and many more advocacy groups.

Councils were also one of the few forces of resistance during their campaign.

"Much of the resistance was on the basis of budgets and funding, with councils trying to play the Scottish Government vs. Local Authority blame-game.

"Local authorities never really took on board or agreed to work with us on the issues relating to staff training on deferral law and policy."

Explainer: What is school deferral and how might it help your child?

Despite this, Give Them Time gained a strong foothold in Holyrood. 

By 2019, campaigners received a promise from MSP Maree Todd, then- Minister for Children and Young People, that the law would change to require councils to provide further nursery care.

As of August, 2023, when the new law took effect, what was once up to the discretion of local authorities – and, according to campaigners, often a “postcode lottery” – became a protected right for parents.

In the intervening years, Ms Anderson and Ms Delaney continued to advocate for parents who were still not aware of their right to deferred entry.

Tomorrow, we will hear more from the campaigners themselves about why they got started and the obstacles they faced along the way.

If deferral is the right choice, now is the time

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.

Each council has a different process for deferring entry, but most ask for a decision in January of the year before a child starts school. For parents looking to defer this year, they will need to decide soon and notify their local authority.

The Give Them Time Facebook page and website offer advice and support for parents who are considering deferred entry, as well as reasons why it may be the right choice for children.

Check with your local authority for specific instructions on deferral.