Education Minister launches consultation on deferral of school starting age

Date published: 09 November 2021

Today, the Department of Education launched a public consultation seeking views on deferring the school starting age in Northern Ireland.

consultation launch

Proposed changes would allow flexibility for younger children born between 1 April and 1 July to defer starting primary school for one year.

Launching the consultation Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “I am fully committed to introducing greater flexibility in school starting age and I understand that this is a genuine concern for parents of children born later in the academic year. I am delighted, therefore, to announce proposals to permit deferral for the youngest children in the year born between 1 April and 1 July.”

“Northern Ireland has excellent schools and a well-regarded play-based curriculum in the early years of primary school. The vast majority of children regardless of their age within their class thrive at primary school.

“However, some parents feel that starting school shortly after their fourth birthday is not right for their very young child. They have concerns around issues such as social skills, emotional readiness, the longer school day and independence in personal care.”

The Department of Education is consulting on proposals to introduce a new policy and changes to the law to allow flexibility in school starting age for the youngest children in the year group. Most children will continue to start primary school at the usual time, however, flexibility would allow these youngest children to defer starting pre-school and then primary school for one year. These children would then start pre-school in the September following their fourth birthday and in primary school in September following their fifth birthday. Flexibility would be available on parental request and would not involve an educational assessment.

 Concluding the Minister said: “I encourage as many people as possible to give their views and feedback on the consultation proposals in order to shape final policy proposals and changes to the law on this important issue.”

The consultation on deferral of school starting age will run for an 8 week period from 9 November 2021 until 4 January 2022.

Notes to editors: 

  1. Consultation documents, including an easy read version, can be accessed via the Department for Education website: Consultation on Deferring School Starting Age | Department of Education (
  2. In Northern Ireland children generally start primary school aged 4 or 5 following a year of government funded preschool provision. Currently, children who turn 4 on or before 1st July start school at the beginning of September that year. Children turning 4 between 2nd July and 31st August do not start school until the following year when they are 5 years old.  This means that children born in July, August and September are the oldest in the year group whereas those born in April, May and June are the youngest.  Children who are the youngest in the class are sometimes called Young for Year children.
  3. The primary school curriculum for pupils in Years 1 and 2 is specifically designed to take account of the young age children start school In Northern Ireland. Learning through play is an important element of the Foundation Stage; it is designed to build on children’s earlier learning experiences in pre-school by providing an appropriate learning programme that develops their disposition to learn and introduces them to more formal learning in a way and at a pace that takes account of their age and level of development. However, some parents are concerned about their very young child starting school.
  4. If these proposals were agreed and the law changed, parents would be able to apply for a child born between 1 April and 1 July to delay starting pre-school and in turn primary school for one year.  Instead of starting pre-school shortly after their third birthday, these children would wait and start pre-school in September following their fourth birthday.  They would then start Year 1 in primary school in September following their fifth birthday. This approach means children who defer will still receive one year of pre-school immediately prior to starting primary school. The option to defer will be available on parental request to any child born between 1 April and 1 July. It would not involve an educational assessment.
  5. Views expressed during the consultation will be used to help inform decisions to be taken by the Minister of Education.  No changes will be made to the preschool or primary school admissions process for September 2022.  The earliest that legal changes could be in place is for children applying to start pre-school or primary school in September 2023.
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  7. Media enquiries to the Department of Education Press Office at
  8. The Executive Information Service operates an out-of-hours service for media enquiries only between 1800hrs and 0800hrs Monday to Friday and at weekends and public holidays. The duty press officer can be contacted on 028 9037 8110.

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