Born Too Late? Why Summer Born Children Can Struggle at School
For many years, research has shown that children born in the summer months tend to do less well as a group in school tests than their autumn-born counterparts. If you stop to think about this for a moment, it seems logical that this might be the case. The children are younger than their peers and have therefore had less time to develop and grow before they begin their schooling. Although the difference in test results does get smaller as the children grow older, it persists, according to the month of birth, right through to GCSEs, A Levels and even into further education. In countries where the academic year starts at a different time of year, the effect of being the youngest in the class is still apparent; it simply affects a different part of the cohort. In addition to the gap in test results, summer born children are also significantly more likely to be diagnosed as having special educational needs than their autumn-born counterparts.
The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) summarises the point that a child has reached at the end of the Foundation Stage (i.e. the end of their Reception year in primary school). The data from the EYFSP is used to check whether the child has achieved what the DfE refer to as a “good level of development”. At such a young age, it seems only logical that the level the child reaches will depend on the month in which they were born. At the time when the profile is completed, a September born baby will have experienced almost 60 months of life, while an August born baby will have experienced up to 12 months less. The EYFSP figures from 2015 – 2016 give a clear picture of the gap in results according to the month of birth. “Of pupils born in the autumn term, 71% achieved a GLD compared with 49% of those pupils born in the summer, a 22 percentage point attainment gap, marginally lower than in 2013.” It is easy to see why parents might feel uneasy about a ‘failing to achieve’ label being placed on such a young child.
“Children born in the summer can be up to 20% younger than the oldest children in their class”
The statutory requirement in England is for children to be in ‘full-time education’ by the term after they turn five – the compulsory school starting age. In reality, though, the vast majority of children start in a Reception class at the age of four. Those born in the autumn months very quickly turn five. However, those born in the summer months can spend the whole of their first year of school aged four. Or, in other words, they can be up to 20% younger than the oldest children in their class. The age difference is magnified further because the period from birth to five years old is the time when children go through the most rapid period of development in their lives.
In recent years, the question of what to do about these anomalies for summer born children has come increasingly into focus. With ever greater levels of data and accountability for schools, and a push from the DfE for more and more children to meet the ‘expected standard’, the downward pressure on children, parents, teachers and schools has increased. Some parents do not feel that their child is ready to start school when they have only just turned four, and would prefer them to stay in an early years setting or to be educated at home. What parent wants to be told that their four-year-old child is not progressing ‘as expected’, particularly if the comparison is made in relation to much older children? Increasingly, some parents of summer born children are starting to ask that their children begin in Reception a year later, at the compulsory school starting age.
“The children are younger than their peers and have therefore had less time to develop and grow before they begin their schooling.”
In 2015, the minister for school standards, Nick Gibb MP, tried to address the issue of admissions for summer born children. He wrote an open letter to parents, local authorities, schools and admissions authorities, asking schools to take account of the views of parents, and the needs of the child. Gibb stated that, if the parents requested that their child begins school in Reception, at the statutory starting age of five years old, the admissions authority should give due consideration to their wishes. In theory, summer born children could be admitted to a Reception class at the age of five (i.e. a year later than would normally happen) and stay with this same cohort throughout their time in school.
In 2016, in a debate in Parliament, Nick Gibb talked about how the government needed to “ensure that parents do not use the flexibilities as a mechanism by which to gain an unfair advantage in the admissions system” by applying for a Reception place twice. A cost assessment is currently being done into the idea of changing the school’s admission code. Because the right to defer entry has not been written into legislation, there is at the moment a postcode lottery as to whether this option is available to parents. While some local authorities and admissions bodies are happy to give parents the right to defer entry, others refuse to allow this. Even where parents receive the right for their five-year-old child to begin primary schooling in Reception, some report that secondary schools wish them to move back into their ‘correct’ year group. At present, the picture is confused and the situation varies widely across the country.
In addition to a confused picture over school entry, there is an additional anomaly because of the way that the funding for early education works. Early years funding begins ‘the term after the child turns 3’, at which point parents receive an entitlement of fifteen ‘free’ hours of childcare a week. This means that children born in the Autumn term are entitled to five terms of early years funding before they begin school, while children born over the summer are only entitled to three terms if they begin in a Reception class at the age of four. Where the local authority agrees to defer entry, a summer born child can retain their entitlement to early years funding for a longer period of time.
If the local authority decides that a [summer born] child should be placed straight into Key Stage 1, they lose the right to access the play based Reception year.
For parents of summer born children, the decision to defer is not a straightforward one. If the local authority decides that the child should be placed straight into Key Stage 1, they lose the right to access the play based Reception year. Another concern for parents is that their child may have made friends within a nursery setting and that the child would lose out in terms of social development and contact with friends when these friends move into Reception. In an amusing and hopefully tongue in cheek suggestion, a head teacher recently wrote an article saying that parents should time their pregnancies differently, to avoid this ‘summer born’ issue in the first place.
In a more serious attempt to address the problem, a recent interview with Dr David Whitebread of the University of Cambridge suggested an alternative answer. Dr Whitebread suggested that the solution might lie in changes to the EYFS and Key Stage One curriculum, rather than to changes in admissions. If England were to take a less formal route in the early years, rather like Finland does at present, perhaps parents might not feel that their summer born child is missing out on an important time in their education. And all children would have full access to those vital early years of play based, pressure free and child-led education.
Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and teacher trainer, and she has helped to run her local preschool for the last eight years. Her website is www.suecowley.co.uk. Sue’s latest book “Road School” tells the story of what happened when she and her partner took their children out of school for six months, to educate them ‘on the road’. Visit www.roadschooldiary.co.uk for more information.
Summer born children website – a fantastic resource for parents and practitioners
Month of birth and education – a detailed analysis of the research
Summer born children and education – a brief summary of the research and current position in England
Results of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile in England (2015 – 2016)
Nick Gibb MP’s letter regarding admissions of summer born children
DfE advice on the admission of summer born children
Analysis of EYFSP results by month of birth
Pregnancy plan to solve summer born problem
Interview with Dr David Whitebread