Is your birthday in June or December? An irrelevant question for most adults, but for children whether they were born in the summer or the winter can have a real impact on how well they perform at school.
New statistics released by the Department for Education show that the gap is most pronounced in the early years. Results for the Early Years Foundation Profile – an assessment done in the year children turn five years old – showed that in England, 49% of those born in the summer months achieve a “good level of development”, compared to 71% of children born in the autumn months.
This summer birth problem is an international one, occurring because schools and other educational institutions tend to recruit new pupils in terms of an inflexible calendar year. In England, a child born on August, 31 would go to school a whole year ahead of a child born on September, 1 – even though the two children might have been born only minutes apart.
Every subsequent year the summer-born child will be up to one year younger than other children in their class. Their attainment, self-esteem, and chances of being selected for sports teams or even university are considerably lower, all other things being equal.
Changes with age
It is hard to fully assess how the problem changes with age, because the expected results vary as the child progresses through school – and after the age of 16 are based heavily on who stays on in education.
Nevertheless, the gaps remain substantial throughout primary school and early secondary school. The most recent figures tracking the gap show differences of around 8% in the proportion of autumn and summer-born pupils reaching the “expected” levels of writing, reading and maths in Key Stage 1 (ages five to seven). Around the same percentage point difference appears in the number of pupils attaining the expected levels of English and maths at Key Stage 2 (ages seven to 11).
Moving up further, around 6% more children born in the autumn gain five or more “good” GCSEs including English and maths than children born in the summer. This represents the possibility of quite different futures for thousands of young people every year – a problem caused by an artificial date threshold of our own creation.
How to reduce the gap
Research suggests that most of the progress made by children over one primary school year can be explained simply by their increased age. This is true whether they actually attend school that year (born in August) or not (born in September). The summer birth problem also appears in different societies, and is common to sub-groups such as children of different ethnic origins. It seems to be almost entirely a school calendar problem.
It cannot be solved by altering the date on which pupils enter schools. An autumn or winter-born problem would be no better than a summer-born one. Researchers have found that it cannot be solved by delaying entry to kindergarten, or making pupils repeat a year. The problem is worsened by selection, setting and streaming of pupils; yet despite this, such ideas are gaining traction again in policy debates around education in England.
There are a range of possible solutions, such as putting tests and assessments online and making pupils sit them only once they reach a certain age, rather than always at the end of a school year. But probably the simplest solution in the short term is to routinely age-standardise all assessment results.
This would mean that children could all still sit tests or exams at the same time and the results could still come out annually. But, as with many existing commercial tests of literacy, numeracy or cognitive attainment, the results would be adjusted for the precise age of each candidate. These age-independent results would be the official record, and could then be used instead of the raw scores for any future educational decisions – whether by schools, universities, employers, individuals or families.
There is no valid reason why the younger children in each year group should have a worse chance in education because of a bureaucratically convenient decision outside their control. We can and should do something about it.