This year, as midnight ticked past on 31st August, and September rolled around again, I felt a tangible sense of relief. I was finally sure that my soon-to-arrive grandchild, whose due date is in early September, had crossed the school starting age barrier between September 2020 and September 2021. No longer do I have to worry about a tiny little boy or girl being dressed in a school uniform and toddling off to sit at a school desk while the remains of the fourth birthday cake still linger in the tin.
While the law on school starting age has remained unchanged for many years- the child must start school during the school term in which s/he becomes five- for many years the government have instructed Local Authorities in England to permit parents to send their children to school at the beginning of the school year in which they become five, which runs from 1st September to 31st August. The culture of National Curriculum testing presumes that children within a given school year group will work at the same standard, and the first of such tests (phonics) arrives for all at the beginning of the second year in primary school. Hence, despite recent reminders from the government that children born in the spring and summer do not have to begin school in September, parents experience significant pressure to start them at the same time as their autumn and winter born classmates, including the threat that summer-borns may miss all or part of their Reception year.
For me, this invokes memories of the distant days of the mid-1960s when the statutory testing of young children was not even a twinkle in Margaret Thatcher's eye. As a late July birthday during this era, I started school at Easter and therefore only experienced one term in the Reception Class (or 'Class 1' as it was then known). My memories are of initially finding it hard to settle in an environment where the children I was supposed to think of as my 'peers' were so much larger and more capable. Nevertheless, little sympathy was exerted on summer born stragglers, and we were expected to 'shape up' as quickly as possible. While I don't remember finding catching up academically particularly difficult, I do have memories of being socially and emotionally less secure than many of my peers for much of the time I was at primary school.
Twenty five years later, my own more socially-assured July-born daughter started school after the Christmas of her Reception year, following eighteen months in play-based nursery education. At this time, statutory testing for young children had moved from the twinkle in Thatcher's eye to the DFE drawing board, but was not yet a fully fledged reality. In these more enlightened days, summer-born entrants were carefully placed within an age-matched group, which was overseen by a full time teaching assistant. However I still have some associated 'summer-born' memories of the following July: a huge September-born child with a pile of gold construction-paper medals around his neck, having won every single Reception event at the school sports day.
The school starting age was set at five by W. S. Gladstone's government in 1870 in order to ensure that children could finish their education at ten in order to keep up the numbers in the juvenile labour force, and there it stayed. By 2016, most children in the world started school at 6, with a substantial minority starting at 7. Those nations who start children at 7 experience less of an autumn/winter-summer birthday gap, because the life experience differential gets smaller as children grow older. For example in terms of life experience, the difference between a four year old and a five year old is the same as the difference between an eight year old and a ten year old, or a twelve year old and a fourteen and a half year old: that is, one fifth. In a system that nevertheless presumes that all children within the same year group should be working at a similar level, it is hardly surprising that summer-born children are more likely to be diagnosed with special needs.
The evidence indicates that the gap between summer-borns and autumn/winter-borns does narrow over the years as the age differential reduces. However, it also suggests that summer birthdays never fully catch up. Top athletes are far more likely to be born between September and December than between May and August. This finding is so well entrenched in sports science that it even has its own designator: 'The Relative Age Effect'. With respect to academic qualifications, autumn/winter-borns do statistically better at GCSEs and 'A' levels and are more likely to be admitted to more prestigious universities.
The 'Relative Age Effect' is therefore a multi-faceted phenomenon, which highlights a festering inequality which has existed at the core of state education for many years. The suggestion that statutory testing should be age standardised only deals with part of the problem; it does not address the effect on children's confidence when they are placed in a peer group where they are doomed to start from the back in every sense- physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. Theresa May's first speech as Prime Minister emphasised her desire to address societal inequalities. However, the 2010 report of the Inter Ministerial Group on Equalities of the Inter Ministerial Group on Equalities which she signed as Chair of this committee made no reference to the summer birthday issue at all.
For too many years, those born in the summer months have experienced a set of Catch 22 policies that do not address the core of the problem. Requiring them to enter school at such a significantly earlier stage in life than some of their peers is clearly unfair. However missing most or all of the Reception year for a later start to schooling only to be placed within the same cohort is, if anything, slightly worse, particularly in England's statutory testing-obsessed education culture. A later start to formal schooling overall, grouping in narrower age cohorts during the early years of school and age standardisation applied to statutory testing could however constitute a co-ordinated range of potential solutions.
While as a grandmother, I can now breathe a sigh of relief that my own grandchild has crossed the line to become a winner with respect to the Relative Age Effect, as a psychologist and education professional, I am still highly concerned about a policy that creates such a glaring inequality at the heart of England's state education system.