Age for starting primary school - The effect of an increase in the statutory age to age 7

Created on: 02 Jul 2019 | Last modified: 19 Jul 2023


1. The 2017 AGM passed a resolution on school starting age as follows:

“This AGM resolve that the EIS should investigate and report on the effect of an increase in the statutory age for starting primary school to age 7 and the development of a compulsory kindergarten stage, where there is a focus on social skills and learning through play.”

During the debate on this resolution at the AGM the mover noted that in most countries, children start formal education later than children in Scotland, and that the starting age of five “dates back to 1870, and isn’t based on educational reality”.. He argued that “there is no educational detriment to starting later”.

The EIS Education and Equality Department undertook a range of activities to investigate the effect of increasing the statutory age for starting primary school to age seven and the development of a compulsory kindergarten stage. We started from the assumption that there would be multiple effects of these initiatives. There are implications for:

-children and young people – their outcomes, wellbeing, attainment
- the early learning and childcare sector
- teachers, especially of P1 and P2; teacher numbers; teachers’ professional learning
- society – for example, longer-term impacts on young people’s social, emotional and cognitive development, etc.
- parents, carers and families – childcare issues, out of school care aspect, etc.
- public finances – for professional learning, for suitable school accommodation/infrastructure, for staffing in adequate numbers, etc.

A range of actions were taken to support the investigation, including:

  • Desk-based research during autumn 2017 and early 2018

  • Meetings and discussions with key partners and advisers in spring 2018:

  1. Children in Scotland, a charity advocating for children’s rights

  2. The Upstart campaign for a kindergarten stage

  3. Prof. Aline Wendy Dunlop, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Strathclyde (who, in 2016, conducted independent research commissioned by the EIS on the contribution of GTCS-registered teachers in early years settings)

  4. The ‘Give Them Time’ campaign for more parental choice regarding deferral of children starting Primary One in Scotland.

  • A Council Members’ focus group, held in Sept 2018

  • Attendance at a conference on play, Child’s Curriculum International Conference, and informal discussions at the conference reception, in Nov 2018

  • A survey of NQTs, conducted in early 2019.

2. Context: current policy and approaches
2.1 Current school starting age Children who attend school in Scotland usually start school between the ages of 4.5 and 5.5 years old. Any single school year group consists of children born between the beginning of March in one year and the end of February the following year. Children born between March and August start school in the August of, or following, their fifth birthday. Those born between September and February start school in the August prior to their fifth birthday.

However, parents of children born between September and December can request to defer their child’s entry to the following August. These deferrals are not automatic and are subject to approval by the local education authority. Parents of children born in January and February may also choose to defer their child’s entry; these requests are automatically approved. Children whose entry is deferred will tend to be aged between 5.5 and 6 years old at the time they start school. Delayed entry to school is more common in other countries than it is in UK countries.1

The ‘Growing Up in Scotland’ study found that:

  • at school entry, 42% of children were under 5, 49% were aged between 5.0 and 5.5 years, and 9% were older than 5.5 years
  • 87% of children started school in the August when they were first eligible and 13% had their entry deferred
  • the most common reasons for deferring entry were that the parent(s) felt the child was ‘not ready’ (44%) or that she or he was too young (32%).

Young children in Scotland also have an entitlement to early learning and childcare (ELC), and ELC is expanding, to almost double the entitlement to funded ELC from 600 to 1140 hours per year, by 2020, for all three- and four-year olds and eligible two- year olds (there are specific circumstances which confer eligibility3). The campaigning organisation Children in Scotland takes the view that new infrastructure for ELC in Scotland will provide a foundation for a new approach to P1/P2. Only 12% of countries have four or five as a starting age for school; all are either in the UK or are former British colonies. By contrast, 66% of countries have a starting age of six or over and 22% have a starting age of seven or over. Most children in EU countries start school at age six or over.

Age  Country 
Four  Northern Ireland
Five  Cyprus, England, Malta, Scotland, Wales
Six Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey
Seven Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Sweden



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