Summer-born children – what age is best to start school?

In a debate in the House of Commons last night, School’s Minister, Nick Gibb, raised concerns about “the number of cases in which it appears children are being admitted to year 1 against their parents’ wishes and are, as a consequence, missing out on their reception year at school.” The Minister said there would be a “full public consultation, and subject to parliamentary approval, the government would introduce further changes to ensure that no child is forced to start school before they are ready.”

(Note: the Government’s announcement ahead of the proposed changes can be read here).

The adjournment debate was called by Conservative MP, Stephen Hammond, to raise the issue of summer-born and pre-term children deferring the start of school to a year later. The Department for Education have issued guidelines for local authorities and parents, which the MP would like to see better consistency of the rules. The guidelines are ‘non-statutory’ and practice varies across the country. Mr Hammond is also seeking clarification that a child granted a deferral, can then stay with the same cohort throughout both primary and secondary stages of education.

Comment from Dr Claire Crawford, Assistant Professor of Economics at Warwick University:

“Our research suggests that it is the age at which children sit their exams that largely determines why summer-born children perform more poorly in national achievement tests, on average, than autumn-born children.

Accounting for a child’s age when calculating their grades would solve this problem, but greater flexibility in school starting dates will not. While it is clearly advantageous for the existing rules to be applied consistently throughout the country, the evidence does not suggest that this will ‘level the playing field’ for summer-born children.”

Expert comment from Dr. David Whitebread, Senior Lecturer in Psychology & Education, Director, Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDaL), University of Cambridge Faculty of Education:

“It is quite clear that the extent of the summer born effect is more severe in the UK than in many other countries, and the evidence suggests this arises from the young age at which children here start school. When a child starts in the Reception class of a Primary school they can be as young as 4 years and 1 day old, a whole year younger than the statutory school starting age, and 2 or 3 years younger than the school starting age in all other European countries with the exception of Malta. In countries with these later starting ages there is a very much reduced summer born effect, or none at all, and there is no evidence from international comparisons that children in the UK are better educated than children from elsewhere – indeed, we have been steadily slipping down the international league tables over the last 20 years or so.

So, delaying the start of school by one year for summer born children is a very good idea, provided that they then start in Reception and receive the 7 years of primary schooling that all other children in the UK receive.”

Expert reaction from Tammy Campbell, Researcher, Department of Quantitative Social Science, UCL Institute of Education:

“It is very good news that moves are being made to address the disadvantages of younger children. However, flexibility in starting age will not completely solve the problem. It is also important to consider the other factors that create the ‘month of birth effect.’

These include the reception curriculum itself. There are indications that some parts of it are developmentally inappropriate for four year olds. This means that, regardless of the exact age at which they start school, some children will fall behind their peers – simply because they are not quite ready for the work expected.

My research also suggests that early ability grouping can make the problem worse. The youngest children in the class are much more likely to be placed in the lower groups – purely because they are less mature and ready compared to their peers.

So alongside flexibility in starting age, there are at least two more things that should immediately be considered. Firstly, expectations and assessments of reception children could be differentiated according to age, as suggested by colleagues at the IFS. Secondly, the very early use of ability grouping should be revised – as it only reinforces the wide gaps caused by age differences at the beginning of primary school.”

Reaction from Dr Dieter Wolke, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Individual Differences, University of Warwick who has researched the topic of summer born children, in particular pre-term children:

“There is now quite conclusive scientific research that those who are the youngest in class (born June to August) do more poorly academically across primary school and until secondary school. There is indeed a gradual impact of age within class.

The major question is how to deal with it? As outlined by Stephen Hammond, deferring just reception or deferring and then jumping a class in secondary school does not seem to be the most suitable solution. Delaying school entry means that the child is kept back for a year – Thus those born in June to August would now be the oldest in the class if held back. The question is – does that now disadvantage the now 1 year younger children born in April to June entering school at the “right” time? Would now just move but not solve the problem.

There may be a good case to apply delayed school entry to those born preterm, however. For example a child that would have been born in September (expected date of delivery), if 12 weeks preterm would now have been born in June. Rather than enter school a year later, the child would now have to enter a year earlier although we know preterm children are at risk of showing slower development on average. Thus they experience double jeopardy.

We investigated delayed school entry and their effects for children and preterm children in Germany where this is possible on application and paediatric assessment. Our study did not indicate academic advantage for delayed school entry. Just delaying children may not be advantage by itself – academic achievement ability does not magically grow with maturity. In particular, children from socially deprived back grounds may not benefit from staying an additional year at home. Rather it may be that the (preterm) children enter school at the same time but receive additional help in school as they have a special need to deal with school.

Currently, there is no decisive evidence one way or the other. To get this evidence the government would need to fund a controlled study that randomises volunteers to delayed and not delayed school entry. ”

Note to journalists:

Reference: Jaekel, J., Strauss, V. Y.-C., Johnson, S., Gilmore, C., & Wolke, D. (2015). Delayed school entry and academic performance: a natural experiment. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 57(7), 652-659. doi: 10.1111/dmcn.12713


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