A boy who turned 16 last month and a girl who turned 15 the week before have recently started their final GCSE year. With only a few days short of a year between them, it's a big difference in age and a difference which is even more pronounced in the earliest school years; year one and reception. Children starting school must be in education on the prescribed day following their fifth birthday, but the law allows for them to start earlier. Consequently, most children begin Reception at age four, a clear September start that some argue is too soon for those children born in the summer months.
The issue of how to best cater for such children, to ensure they are not disadvantaged simply because of their date of birth, is a complex one. Two years ago, the Government announced its intention to 'give summer-born children the right to start in reception at the age of five', but the proposals have been delayed. Deferring school entry can have greater positive effects for children from higher-income families who have more opportunity to develop a range of skills before they begin formal education. Additionally, there's the argument that some parents might play the system, allowing them to apply twice for the best primary schools. There are also cases of those who defer simply beginning school in year 1, missing out on a year's education, or start full-time education later in the year. Whilst this might be more suitable in terms of their school-readiness, these children could be receiving up to three terms less tuition, which may disadvantage them when sitting exams.
Now the Government is offering access to extended childcare provision of up to 30 hours free care for three and four-year-olds in a scheme which has been beset by problems. However, beyond the cries of insufficient funding there's another factor to consider. Access to this childcare is available 'from the term after your child's third birthday'. For those born in September, this means a great deal more government-funded care than for those born in the summer months. Multiple studies have shown that summer births are educationally disadvantaged, so rather than increase the gap, what can we do to improve their chances?
First, let's be clear. We label this an issue of summer birthdays as if being born in the summer were disadvantageous beyond educational outcomes. That's not the case. Children born in June, July or August tend to have a heavier birth weight and be taller than those born in other seasons. Yet in terms of education, summer births are disadvantaged. These children have had the least development time before they start school. Older children are likely to be more physically adept, with better language skills and a greater capacity to concentrate. Numerous studies demonstrate how this significant time difference 'leads to variation in physical and academic performance' and that 'this variation extends to the duration of full-time education and the likelihood of achieving qualifications'.
The gap does narrow as children age and does not persist into adulthood, but according to the 'When you are born matters' study, the difference in educational attainment remains significant. It states that August-born children are 6.4% less likely to achieve five GCSE passes and about '2 percentage points less likely to go to university at age 18 or 19' than those children born in the previous September. Further, the study shows that whilst the difference between September and August births is the greatest, each month difference in age is significant. Summer-born children, according to the study, are also 'likely to exhibit significantly poorer socio-emotional development' and 'have significantly lower confidence in their own ability', and are 'more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as underage smoking', experimenting when their older friends do. There can also be an issue of lower teacher expectations of children born in the summer months.
We might reasonably ask if this is unavoidable. Whenever the school year begins and ends, there will always be children who are nearly a year older than some of their peers and reforming traditional organisational patterns around school entry is a challenging task. It is an appealing idea to increase parental autonomy so they might choose when their child starts school, rather than an institutional insistence on a model which does not fit all children. However, this only solves the problem for some children and creates a new group of disadvantaged children born slightly earlier in the year.
Whilst solutions to this thorny issue are hard to find, there are some ideas which could ameliorate the problem. Students could have non-age-adjusted grades as they leave school to demonstrate whether or not they have achieved 'a particular absolute standard', alongside parallel age-adjusted test scores or indeed, be allowed 'to sit exams when they are "ready" (for example, at a particular age rather than on a particular date)'. If formal school started later, like in Finland, the relative age difference between pupils would be smaller, but again the older students would still have an advantage. Delayed entry doesn't appear to be the answer either. There are numerous other factors which will have an effect on children's education journeys, but we must do what we can to prevent something so entirely arbitrary as date of birth from having a negative impact. We need fairness, to reduce the artificial advantage of age, not a system which is open to being played or one that creates a new disadvantage amongst a particular group of children. Summer born children are not failing because they're the youngest. They're failing because they're the youngest in relative terms. It's good that the Government is considering ways to solve the problem. All new ideas should be brought to the table, but we must exercise caution and not exacerbate the problem. What is available to one child must be available to all.