School starting age and deferred entry explained for parents

When does your child legally have to start school, and what happens if you don't think they’re ready? We explain the rules around your child’s first day at primary school in England.

It seems like only yesterday that you were getting to grips with changing nappies and bathing your newborn; now the time has come to fill out their school application form. Parents tend to fall into two camps – those who are certain that their child is more than ready for the challenge of Reception, and those who have serious doubts about sending their little one to school. But although it might seem as if starting school is a fixed milestone in your child’s development, there is some flexibility.

When do children start school?

In England, all children are entitled to start school in the September following their fourth birthday. This means that the oldest children in the school year will turn five as soon as they begin Reception, while the youngest will have only just celebrated their fourth birthday. There are different school starting ages in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Compulsory School Age explained

Although most children start school in the September after turning four, they are not obliged to be in education until they are of Compulsory School Age. This is a set point in the year following their fifth birthday.

  • Children who turn five between 1 September and 31 December reach Compulsory School Age on 31 December.
  • Children who turn five between 1 January and 31 March reach Compulsory School Age on 31 March.
  • Children who turn five between 1 April and 31 August reach Compulsory School Age on 31 August.

This means that ‘summer born’ children – those born between 1 April and 31 August – don’t have to start school until a full year after they could have been admitted.

Deferring your child’s start date

Currently, you can request that your child's school starting date is delayed by a year if they were born between 1 April and 31 August, and you don't think they're ready to start school in the term after they turn four. ‘Different children develop at different rates, and although some summer born children are more than ready to start school soon after their fourth birthday, many others are not,’ explains Pauline Hull of the Summer Born Campaign.

If you make a request to delay your child's school entry, the school has the right to decide whether they can start in Reception a year late, or whether they go straight into Year 1 with their normal age group, missing the whole Reception year. 

If you want to delay your child's starting date, you'll need to apply for a school place for them to start at the normal time (i.e. the September after their fourth birthday), but should submit your request for deferred entry at the same time. The school should tell you how to make your request.

The law says that if you defer your child's school starting date until the term after they turn five, the admission authority (the local authority or the school's governing body, including the headteacher) must take account of the child's individual needs and abilities in making a decision about whether they should be admitted to Reception or Year 1. The decision must be made in the child's best interests.

It's advisable that you submit any relevant information with your request for your child to start Reception a year late. This could simply be a statement that you write explaining your reasoning, but if you have reports from relevant professionals who are involved with your child, such as their health visitor or a speech and language therapist, you should enclose these as well.

The admission authority should tell you whether they'll grant your request before primary school National Offer Day (mid-April).

If your request is granted, you'll need to withdraw your application and re-apply the following year. Your application will be treated as a new application, and you'll be subject to the same admissions criteria as every other child applying for a Reception place.

If your request is declined, you have the choice to carry on with your child's application and accept a place in the their normal age group, or refuse the place they've been offered, skip the Reception year and make an application for them to start in Year 1 the following year.

There's no right of appeal, but you can make a complaint to the admissions authority, which they have to process in line with their complaints procedure.

The Summer Born Campaign is appealing for all parents of summer born children who defer school entry until Compulsory School Age to have the choice of whether they start in Reception or Year 1. ‘It’s unfair that parents in some areas have this option, while in others, they have to decide between sending their child to school before they’re ready or letting them miss a whole year of their education,’ Pauline explains.

'The whole process can feel very complicated to parents. For example, they may have to visit all potential schools in advance of applying to find out their position, and then only list the schools that would be supportive of their request, or be told that their current nursery or pre-school cannot continue to accommodate their child because they "should" be in school, leaving them searching for another setting.

‘Put everything in writing and keep records, and get your local councillor involved if your local authority, rather than the school itself, is the decision maker, as they are best placed to put pressure on the council on your behalf,’ adds Pauline.

Sending your child to school part-time

Some schools have a staggered entry for new Reception starters, with children attending part-time at first, while others like children to attend full-time from day one. Whatever the normal procedures at your child’s school, you have the right to send them to school part-time until they reach Compulsory School Age. The arrangements for this should be discussed with your child’s school. However, once your child has reached Compulsory School Age, they have to attend full-time.

Taking your Reception child on holiday

Parents often like to make the most of their child’s Reception year to take a term-time holiday before the academic pressure intensifies, but schools often discourage this. However, legally speaking, it’s not unlawful for you to take your child out of school for a holiday before they reach Compulsory School Age. The school is obliged to mark your child as present or absent, but don’t have to record whether their absence is authorised. This means that schools are not allowed to refuse the leave, mark it as unauthorised or fine you for taking them out of school – although they might still encourage you to follow the school’s usual procedures and write a letter or fill in a form to explain your child’s absence.