14/08/2014 12:56 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Do Summer Born Children Always Come Last?

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three cute little girls with cake

With a birthday at the tail end of July I should really be standing at the back of the class with my dunce's hat on (always assuming I manage to find the back of the class with my lack of academic prowess).

Study after study has shown that children born in the summer lag behind at primary school, especially boys - but as we all know perfectly capable summer-borns who have managed not to end up in prison or on the dole, it's easy to dismiss these studies.

But as parents, should we worry for our own children? Well, the answer is yes, perhaps we should. One recent large-scale piece of research comparing the lives of children born in September with those born in August revealed that the summer children were nearly three times as likely to be lagging behind in reading and maths aged seven.

Of course, that's hardly surprising: the younger children aren't intrinsically less able but they are almost a year younger than some of their classmates – and when you're five, every month counts.
You'd expect those gaps in achievement to narrow as they got older, which they do - although agonisingly slowly. Other studies show that there are still differences aged 12.

But where it gets really surprising is that the month of your birth seems still to matter aged 18 and beyond. In the study mentioned above, the August children were 20 per cent more likely to study for vocational qualifications and 20 per cent less likely to end up at a top university than their classmates born in September.

How can that be? Experts think it's because these children are labelled as struggling early on – and as we all know with primary school, once your child gets a label as 'the bright one' or 'the thick one', it's very hard to change that perception, no matter how much they change later.

So the small, weedy child in reception who was too nervous to go into the wendy house unaccompanied will still be seen that way aged 10.

"As a primary school teacher I've seen how summer babies, particularly boys, can take the whole of primary school to catch up with the older ones in the class – some never fully catch up and you're still making allowances for them at 11," says Lucy Smith, from Swindon, Wiltshire.

When she was planning her first baby she went for an autumn birth for this very reason, and says all her teacher friends try to do the same.

August-born children are also more likely to be bullied at primary school, probably because they tend to be smaller and less emotionally developed than the older ones.

Looking around my daughter's nursery school, it was always easy to spot the autumn-born girls (or the master race as my husband called them): they were poised, emotionally mature, and already well-versed in the dark playground arts.

That's an advantage they keep for years, probably because of the huge boost in confidence they got so early in their lives from being the biggest and the best. That's thought to be the reason so many top sportsmen and academic achievers turn out to have autumn birthdays. Most Premier League footballers have September or October birthdays, says Professor Richard Wiseman, author of the Luck Factor (Arrow, £6.99). The argument goes that they would have been more physically mature for their age, and therefore more likely to be picked for teams, which would have further built their confidence.

No wonder more and more of us are now actively trying to time the birth of our children; one survey suggested 32 per cent had a particular 'good month' in mind: most tried to avoid Christmas and the summer.

But before you start counting on your fingers to avoid having a summer baby next time, it's worth remembering a couple of things. Nothing is inevitable, and parents can play a big part in boosting the confidence of their children. Experts remind us to keep an eye on them in the early years of their primary education to make sure they're not falling behind, and - very importantly - try to make sure they are not labelled early on.

Unlike in the US, it's really very difficult to hold your child back a year if their birthday falls on the cusp of an academic year, even if you're convinced they are struggling. According to a spokesman for the Department for Education: "A child becomes of compulsory school age when he or she reaches the age of five and must start school in the term following his or her fifth birthday."

So even if you were to hold your just-turned four-year-old back until the term after they were five all that would happen is that they would miss their reception year and go straight into Year 1 – which is hardly the gentle easing into school life that parents want.

On the plus side, however, other research suggests that summer babies are less likely to be obese – probably because we didn't spend our earliest months building up fat to protect against the cold weather.

And if all else fails, having a summer baby is a good excuse when they don't get their 10 A* GCSEs.