All over England, parents of 3- and 4-year-olds are thinking about school. Local schools are advertising open days; local authorities are sending out mailshots, detailing the deadlines by which “you must submit”; there are even radio adverts telling you that you need to apply for a school place before it’s too late.
But if you are one of the (increasingly) numerous parents who feel uneasy with the thought of sending your young child to school, it’s important to know that you CAN choose not to.
That’s right. Your 4-year-old does NOT have to go to school.
I realise that for some families, it seems absolutely the right thing to do, and I totally understand that. But I know there are parents out there who, like I was, are uncomfortable with the idea of their 4-year-old going off into full-time school, for whatever reason. Maybe because it feels like too much when they are still so tiny. Or because they feel like they need to be in the loving care of close family for a bit longer. Or maybe because, like me, since watching their children learn freely and naturally, their whole outlook on institutional education has changed.
Whatever the reason, the option – the perfectly valid and legal option – to NOT send your 4-year-old to school, is relatively unknown, and rarely talked about. Local authority literature often makes little (if any) mention of the fact that education at 4 is not compulsory. Nor do they publicise the fact that school – at any age – is optional. Instead, they seem, in many cases, to keep this information hidden away in a corner of their website, that you might only find if you type in the right search term.
So here’s the information you might find helpful, if you have (or know of) a 3- or 4-year-old, that might not be suited to school right now.
Firstly, in England, a child’s education is only compulsory from the beginning of the term after their 5th birthday. (For more legalities, see this link.)
This means that if you have a child who is 4, you are under NO LEGAL OBLIGATION to begin any kind of education at all, let alone send them off to full-time school. Of course, in reality, your 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-year-old has been educated in one way or another since birth, since it’s in their inherent nature to learn through their own self-motivation to explore and connect with their surroundings. But legally, you do not have to do anything at all. And you don’t have to inform anyone either (see below).
After your child has turned 5, you then have a legal duty to ensure they are receiving an appropriate education. And the law says you MAY use school for this. You don’t have to; it’s your choice. But it’s a choice that many people don’t seem to know about.
If the thought of school for your little one doesn’t feel right, or if it just feels like too much, too young, you’re not alone. A growing number of families are turning their backs on our ridiculously young school-starting age, and doing things their way, to suit their family.
Before coming to a decision, it’s worth taking time to think it through, weigh up the pros and cons, talk to trusted friends or family, and even do some reading about alternative education options.
Then, if you DO decide NOT to send your 4-year-old to school, your next steps will depend on how far along you are in the school application procedure.
If you have never submitted an application for a school place for your child, you do not have to anything at all. You can simply continue as you are, providing for your child in a way you choose. School is an opt-in system. You do not have to respond to the letters telling you about the application process (if you receive them – some do not), nor do you have to inform the local authority, or anyone else, that you won’t be using a school. Some local authorities “recommend” that you inform them or register with them as a home educator, as they like to be able to keep their records up to date, but again, you are under no obligation to do so.
If you have already submitted an application for a place in reception, and then decide you do not wish your child to go, you should let the local authority know as soon as you can, that you no longer require the place. You could wait until nearer the time and then decline or deregister if necessary (see below), but retracting your application as soon as you’ve made the decision, means that place may be offered to another family at an earlier stage.
If you have already been offered a place, or had one assigned for you, or if your child has already started school, you will need to formally deregister by notifying the school in writing (there are sample templates available for this). From that moment, you need not send your child, anymore.
For some people, it can be a huge relief to know that you (and your child) do not have to do this. If it feels unnatural or uncomfortable, or goes against your inner gut feelings, then trust in your instinct. You know, instinctively, what is right for your young child.
The decision you make now is not a permanent, set-in-stone, irreversible decision. You can always take it, as we and many others do, year by year, deciding as a family what feels right. There is always the option of entering school later on. Some families end up never using schools at all, but for many others, it’s simply a case of delaying it until their child is ready. If you decide to home educate for a bit after your child turns 5, there is plenty of community-based support to help you. A quick search on google should bring up national and local home education pages, which are a good place to start.
There are a few other points to bear in mind as you weigh up your options:
1) Having a place in reception, usually means a guaranteed place at that school in a child’s future years. If you decide not to enter your child in reception, there is no guarantee that in future there will be place available at your local/preferred school, if you later decide that your child is now ready. Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classes are often fully subscribed. You may find yourself having to look further afield.
2) Although at 4 you are under no obligation to provide an “education” for your child, from the beginning of the term after their 5th birthday, you are. This means from that point on, it would be unwise to ignore any letters from the local authority making enquiries, which they are entitled to do if they have reason to believe an education may not be being provided. Ignoring enquiry letters can give them more cause for concern. Instead there are a number of helpful websites that provide template response letters.
3) Some parents with “summer-born” children have had success with requesting a “deferred entry”, in which schools have reserved places for the child until the following year, or even allowed them to enter reception a year later than they would have. It’s worth looking into, if you think this might suit your child.
4) Some schools may agree to the option of “flexi-schooling”, which involves part-time attendance. I have never personally known anyone to have success with this request (it is at the discretion of the head teacher of a school to allow it), but it may be worth a try if you think it could work.
5) Although, legally, non-school education is the default option, and despite the growing numbers of people not opting-in, in wider society, school at 4 is still by far the most common choice, and as a result, you may find yourself feeling like you are swimming against the tide when met with wave after wave of curious (but usually well-intentioned) questions and comments from onlookers. Feel proud of your choice to stand up for what you know is right for your family.
Parents of 3- and 4-year-olds agonise over choosing the “right” school for their child. A tremendous amount of thought, time and emotion – quite rightly – goes into making the decision, weighing up all the options and picking the best schools for their application.
It’s just a shame that so often there is this ONE option that doesn’t enter their thoughts, or is not even known about, or is too easily dismissed.
The option to NOT send their 4-year-old to any school, but to keep them close by them for a bit longer.
It’s definitely an option worth considering.
Please feel free to forward this to anyone who you think might find it useful.
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