Eight years ago, my niece was born three weeks premature at 10 pm on August 31. She started school just after her fourth birthday; had she been born just two hours later, she would have started school just after her fifth birthday. At that age, one year’s development makes a huge difference and it may affect children’s sense of self worth as much as it does their performance.
It is part of efforts to address this that fewer children than expected started school this September. The Department of Education recently relaxed its stance on the cut-off date for school entry, a welcome move. Parents of summer-born children can now ask local authorities to consider their individual child’s circumstances, characteristics and abilities, and decide whether it is in their child’s best interests to be young or old for their year.
But does it really matter? Oh yes, it really does. As popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, the academic advantage for children relatively old in their year is long-lasting. A child born on the “wrong” side of the cut-off date is at almost twice the risk of having language difficulties and behaviour problems reported by their teacher at the end of the reception year. Although such difficulties diminish over time, summer-born children are more likely to have special educational needs, and do significantly less well in their GCSEs.
Additional compelling evidence has emerged from Georgia Leith’s doctoral research. Using a series of interviews with friendly, furry, puppy-dog puppets, she asked 85 pupils in Year 1 about how well they think they are doing in school. For example, one puppet would say, “I’m not good at maths,” and the other puppet would say, “I’m good at maths. How about you?”
Other interview items asked children directly about how they compare themselves to their peers. So the puppets offer up: “I read better than other kids in my class,” and “Other kids read better than me.” On the whole, the children tended to align themselves with the higher achieving puppet. It is noteworthy, however, that the younger children reported lower levels of academic competence than did their older class-mates.
Comparing oneself to one’s peers is part of the human condition. It is heart-breaking to realise that these younger children’s developmental disadvantage may be affecting their self-esteem. If I had a summer baby, I would certainly err on the side of holding them back.
But will this really solve the problem? Won’t this just shift the problem on to spring babies? My sons’ school is large – with 120 pupils per year, divided into four classes. Why not divide the children by the season of their birth? That way, children will be comparing themselves to peers of nearer the same age. This might work for primary schools in large towns, but, of course, it’s not a helpful suggestion for a small village school.
One country that bucks the trend of disadvantaging children who are young for their school is Denmark. Gladwell explains this: “They have a national policy where they have no ability grouping until the age of ten. Denmark waits to make selection decisions until maturity differences by age have evened out.” This is all well and good, but it is hard to imagine how a teacher of 30 children is expected to improve all of their children’s reading without some form of streaming. A more radical approach may be required.
This dovetails nicely with calls from many experts that formal schooling should be delayed for all children until the age of 7. David Whitebread and others argue that younger children do better in contexts where they have the freedom to learn through self-directed play. Delaying formal teaching leads to better attitudes to learning, better mental health, and has no deleterious effects on academic achievement.
Such a delay in formal instruction may be of particular benefit to children young for their year. Although there is a developmental difference between a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old, it is not nearly as profound as the difference between a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old. But such a change to our culture of early and frequent national testing and league tables would be nothing short of a revolution, and seems unlikely in the short to medium term.
In the meantime I think I might drop our headteacher a line about the seasonal classroom idea.