The face of my three-year-old daughter crumples into tears as I leave her at pre-school. It’s a familiar but agonizing moment experienced by many parents on a daily basis. I drive away feeling guilty that I have left her, worried that she is too young to be staying a full day and baffled that she is due to start full-time education in less than six months.
As she approaches her fourth birthday this month, it seems Molly is already having to learn some of the most difficult lessons in life: how to say goodbye and endure separation, how to cope with other people, how to be an individual with some control over her life.
These lessons get played out between us each day in an emotional rollercoaster ride that leaves us both exhausted. She loves me, she hates me, she kisses me, she kicks me. She wants to please me, she wants to defy me, she wants to be me, she wants to not be me.
Molly surprises me with questions such as: “Mummy, when are all my wishes going to come true?”
I am left speechless as my mind struggles to think of a way of answering this question. Eventually I give up and ask her what she is wishing for? “Ice-cream” — at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Her mind works in the most mysterious and wonderful ways, she makes up songs that she yells at the top of her voice, she doesn’t want her favorite dress to be seen by anybody, and she faces any challenge in life firmly attached to a dirty, torn, rag of a soft toy known affectionately as “Bear.”
The few sessions she does at pre-school are based on play. The idea of her soon being taught formally to read and write at school does not seem entirely appropriate or relevant. If she starts school in September, she will only be four years and four months. She may still be clinging to that little bear.
I was therefore delighted when our local authority, South Gloucestershire in southwest England, offered us the choice to defer her start at school. A letter arrived offering her a place at our local primary school in September. It included two small tick boxes offering the options of Molly starting in the following January or April. In January, she will be four and nine months; in April, five.
While this option of deferring entry used to be hidden in the small print of the schools’ admissions brochure for our county, it was now presented more forthrightly on the letter of admission. It struck me as a very real possibility.
I am aware of the concern that summer-born children can be at a big disadvantage — they are up to a year younger than their autumn-born peers on entering reception class and can struggle academically and emotionally as a result.
But I soon realized that our choice was not that straightforward. I asked around and found that none of the other parents were considering delaying their start. If we held Molly back from a September start, she would be left behind at pre-school while all her friends moved on.
Many parents are keen for their children to start school at the earliest opportunity. Living with a pre-school child is not an easy option for full-time mothers, who are often only too ready to hand over their challenging charges to the expertise of a teacher. Working parents are often struggling to meet the costs of childcare. This leaves parents of the youngest children with little choice but to follow suit.