Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.
But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.
We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.
A confusing state of affairs
We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.
“Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.
WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.
“No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.
“This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”
So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?
“Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.
“With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.
“Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”
FOI for gathering hard evidence
As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?
“We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”
WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.
These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.
Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:
“We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”
You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.
The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow
Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.
This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.
“I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
“It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”
This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).
Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:
“WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.
“On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”
You can see some of the media coverage of this decision here.
You should use it, too
Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.
“Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”
We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.
Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem