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Alfie's delayed school start

Photo: Read Alfie's story

Alfie, who is profoundly deaf, was a late summer baby which meant when he started school he’d be a year younger than many of his classmates and likely to struggle. So parents, Melissa and Mark applied to delay him starting school by a year…

Alfie had been diagnosed as profoundly deaf at four weeks old and fitted with hearing aids at six weeks, though they didn’t help him. He was 10 months before he got his first cochlear implant and it was switched on a month later which meant in his first year Alfie heard almost no sound.

“He’d be only three when he started school!”

“To start school and be a year younger, plus having missed out on a year’s language development would effectively put Alfie two years behind the other children,” says Melissa. “He’d been to pre-school for just seven months, he still had a two-and-a-half hour nap in the afternoons. In fact, his birthday was late August, which meant he’d be only three when he started school!”

Mark always thought of Alfie as seeming much less mature than the other children starting school at the same time. “He tended to play with younger children,” says Melissa. “He was still into nursery rhymes. We had piles of books we’d read to his older brother Toby when he was little, but Alfie didn’t have the language and the comprehension. There was no way he was ready for school.”

Melissa and Mark were worried and talked to their Teacher of the Deaf and she came back with some information – it was possible to delay starting school for a year. The couple asked the head teacher about it. He said that legally children didn’t have to start school until they were five but he insisted that if Alfie deferred a year, he’d have to somehow make up the lost time. He suggested one way was to leapfrog straight to Year 1 rather than starting in reception.

“That was ridiculous,” says Melissa. “Alfie would be worse off because he’d have missed out on a year’s schooling.”

Then the school came up with an alternative suggestion – going part-time for the first term. But that was no solution. “He’d miss out on half the classroom time plus it was really important that he fit in with his other classmates, especially being deaf. If he was only there part-time, he’d feel left out,” says Melissa.

“We hated the term ‘low-flyer’ but it was the best way forward for him.”

The couple were resigned to Alfie starting school that year, but then their Teacher of the Deaf found out from the council’s school admissions department that Alfie could defer school for a year and have ‘low-flyer’ status. Being a ‘low-flyer’ means a child can be kept back a year and not have to make that time up by skipping a year to remain with the same peer group.

“It meant he’d never have to make up the time he’d lost out on,” says Melissa. “We hated the term ‘low-flyer’ but it was the best way forward for him, so we went for it.”

To get the status, they had to write to the admissions department stating what benefits Alfie would gain by holding back for a year. The couple wrote that if Alfie started school in the year he was meant to he’d only be three and wouldn’t have the stamina. They’d read a National Deaf Children’s Society article explaining how the extra effort to listen all day was tiring for deaf children, so this would make matters even worse at his young age.

The school agreed to it and their Teacher of the Deaf wrote to the admissions department showing her support for the couple’s decision, which is one of the requirements for low-flyer status. They’ve never looked back.

“It was an easy decision,” says Melissa. “The extra year at home paid off brilliantly. Instead of school, Alfie had five mornings a week of pre-school where they had a fantastic leader who taught phonics to them. When Alfie started school he hit the ground running; he was equal with the other children. If he’d started the previous year he’d have struggled and wouldn’t have had the same confidence or social skills. He loves the fact that he’s the oldest!”

Now aged nine, Alfie’s grades are on a par with his classmates. He’s a little behind on the regular language tests the Teacher of the Deaf carries out, but the gap is closing. And he likes reading books to his younger brother Casper (2).

“It affects Alfie’s whole life, his future, for the better.”

“So many parents don’t know about deferring a year or of low-flyer status. But you hear about summer babies not getting as good results as other children, and that’s without the added challenge of being deaf,” says Melissa. “The ironic thing is had Alfie been born just 12 hours later than he was (and in fact he was a week early), he’d have started the following year anyway!”

“It was a big decision to make but an easy one,” says Mark. “It was the right thing to do. It affects Alfie’s whole life, his future, for the better.”