Many parents think themselves fortunate if they have a baby in the balmy (ish) summer months. After all, it gives you the opportunity to balance some of the inevitable donkey-work – the up-all-hours feeding, nappy-changing and endless washing cycle – with the joy of bright mornings, sunny afternoons in the garden and pleasant pram-powered trips to the park in the lightest of clothing (no swaddling in padded onesies for an August birthday, no siree).
The tables seem to have turned in the seasonal birth lottery, however, with smart parents eschewing the sybaritic indulgences of a summer with baby in exchange for the promise of better performance in the classroom.
What difference does a month make?
A study among seven-year-olds across the country by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed a marked discrepancy between the attainment of the oldest and youngest children in a school year group and concluded that that ‘pupils born later in the academic year perform significantly worse in school than those born at the start of the academic year’. In fact, the study said that August-born children were three times more likely to be ‘below average’ than September-born children, with economic consequences that would ‘last throughout their working lives’. Wow.
The fall-out from this extensive study included a flurry of concern among parents looking for a way to avoid disadvantaging their summer-born tot, and from the government who always has a weather-eye on raising attainment levels in schools.
Obviously it’s not that children are inherently brighter if they’re born in the autumn, simply that our traditional academic year means that there could be as much as a year’s gap between pupils when they start school. The government has instructed schools to be more flexible in allowing parents to decide when their children are ready to take up their place and actually there’s no legal requirement for any child to start school before the age of five. So what’s the problem?
Delaying versus deferring
One of the main issues has been that of delaying entry rather than deferring it. Tomayto, tomato, you might think, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll uncork a conundrum. Some schools have been allowing parents to defer their child’s entry for a year but then requiring the child to enter Year 1, despite not having completed a reception year. Few schools seem open to the idea of delaying entry by a year so the older child can begin in reception – phrases such as ‘only in exceptional circumstances’ start cropping up around this particular issue.
Which leaves the parent with a problem – either their just-turned-four child gets on with it as best they can or they opt for trying to secure a place in the following year’s Year 1 class, which may by this time be fully subscribed. The IFS cautions against deferring entry as its research suggests that younger children who started school with their older peers would still do better than those who joined the class in Year 1, as the length of time in school would outweigh the disadvantage of starting school slightly younger.
Closing the gap
Clearly, all this data is open to interpretation and is necessarily generalised. It’s my belief that children aren’t all ready for school at the same time – even if they’re exactly the same age. I, myself, am a summer baby. Because I grew up in an area that still honoured traditional ‘wakes weeks’ holidays (July), I started school in August when I was still just three years old – a week away from my fourth birthday. It was right for me; I was a bookish child, already reading and writing. But we’re all different.
Interestingly, the research also showed that by the time students get to A-level, summer-borns are on average performing better than their older peers, primarily because if they’re doing well enough to take these advanced qualifications, they’re likely to be among the brightest in their year group – especially when you take the age gap into account.
Smoothing the wrinkles
The report actually argues not for delayed or deferred entry but for age-adjusted test scores that allow children to compete on a level playing field:
‘It is the age at which a child sits a test that is the main determinant of differences in attainment between those born at the start and end of the academic year. This suggests that a policy of providing age-adjusted test scores, so that a child receives feedback about their attainment relative to others their age, rather than others in their class, would help address the educational inequalities we observe.’
Food for thought? Let us know if you have a summer born due to start school.