Written by Justine Brooks

Voices

Take the heat off summer babies

New rules relating to when the school bell has to ring for kids born between April and August would have saved Justine Brooks a lot of worry while allowing her daughter to revel in the magic of reception class.

young schoolchildren walkingShe was 10 days late, and after 48 hours of contractions 10 minutes apart and a subsequent 12 hours of hard labour, my beautiful daughter was born in the very early hours of August 28, 2003.

People said: “Oooh! Couldn’t you have held on for a few more days?” Which made me feel only a vague annoyance; after all, I’d spent the best part of the previous fortnight eating pineapples and curry, drinking raspberry leaf tea, riding on tractors, driving cross-country (very bumpy cross-country), going for long walks and dancing to African drumbeats with my yoga buddies.

I was trying to get this baby born, not have her lurking around in my womb any longer, causing me seven trips to the loo every night.

I was a first-time mother: school wasn’t really something I thought about in those first days and weeks. It was more about how to give her a bath without drowning her, how to change the nappies without getting poo everywhere, how to take the tiny babygrows on and off without bending her limbs the wrong way.

It wasn’t until she started nursery at two-and-a-half that I realised my daughter would be expected to start school just a few days after turning four. A little bit of digging told me there was no flexibility with this either.

“I called the education department of the local council, who were polite yet entirely inflexible and told me repeatedly that unless my daughter had special educational needs, she had to attend school in the September after she turned four.”

My problem with that state-imposed start date? Naps. My daughter has always consistently loved and needed a lot of sleep. She slept through from 10 weeks. (Yes, OK, I’m smug about that.) She would have a morning nap and an afternoon nap and then sleep 10 hours at night. Problem was, she was still doing that when she was three.

Here is my friend Shelley’s experience of sending her summer-born child to school when she was told to: “My son was born at the end of June and was so not ready to start school. He cried and clung to me on drop-off every single morning for the entire first year of school… and some of the second. To say it was stressful – for both of us – is a massive understatement.”

I knew that my own daughter wouldn’t be ready for school at four. I knew she wouldn’t be able to handle the long days. I knew she’d be exhausted and unhappy.

So I spoke to the directors of the Montessori nursery my daughter attended. Both had had personal and professional experience of summer babies not being ready for school, and both were able to give examples of children who coped but who, at some point, ended up missing a year of school or university anyway.

I read about the Swedish education system where children start school at age seven and yet manage to outrank our own in reading and writing levels by the time they are nine. I looked at home-schooling before deciding that being an only child living on an isolated farm with no children for several miles around was probably an even worse solution than being sent to school early.

I called the education department of the local council, who were polite yet entirely inflexible and told me repeatedly that unless my daughter had special educational needs, she had to attend school in the September after she turned four. I called a local private school who said she could start whenever she was ready.

But why take on an hour-each-way round trip when the local school was three minutes up the road, had a total of 62 pupils and, even with combined classes, offered a lower teacher-to-pupil ratio than many of the local private schools? It was a state school with excellent facilities and great staff and most importantly, I wanted her to go there.

“My problem with that state-imposed start date? Naps. My daughter has always consistently loved and needed a lot of sleep. She slept through from 10 weeks. (Yes, OK, I’m smug about that.)”

In the end, it was simple. I just kept her in nursery for another year. (The law then stated children had to be in school by their fifth birthday and I don’t think those few days between 28 August and 1 September actually constituted a breach of the law as no schools are open that week.) So by the skin of our teeth, then…

But she did have to go straight into year one and it remains a shame that, for the sake of a few days, she missed the magical year that is reception.

New admission rules are poised to give parents the right to delay their child’s education for a year, without the prerequisite of having to skip a year to catch up with their peers. So kids could go into reception a year later than before if their parents felt they weren’t ready for full-time education. It seems there is a flicker of common sense on the horizon.

I know many summer babies are ready for school when they’re four, I know lots of parents just want their kids to get into school anyway, but this new ruling means that summer babies like my daughter are given time to get mentally and physically ready for their big adventure.

It gives parents like me and Shelley choice. And quite frankly, mother knows best.

@JustineFBrooks

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Written by Justine Brooks

Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.