The ‘summer born’ penalty

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By law, children in England do not have to be in school until the term after their fifth birthday, but the vast majority start much earlier than this, with over 90% starting school in the September after they turn four. For those born in August, this means starting school when they have only just turned four, up to a year younger than their peers. Professor Lorraine Dearden FAcSS of University College London and colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies – Dr Claire Crawford of the University of Warwick and Ellen Greaves of the University of Bristol – looked into whether it matters when in the school year a child was born.

They found that being amongst the youngest in the class can have significant
implications for many aspects of children’s lives.

For example, those born in August are, on average, around 25% less likely than their September-born classmates to reach the government’s expected level in reading, writing and maths at age seven.They also tend to have lower confidence in their ability and are more likely to be labelled as having mild special educational needs.

Summer-born children do tend to catch up with their autumn-born peers as they get older, but there are still differences in attainment at GCSE, A-Level and even university. For example, while 60% of those born in September achieve 5 A*-C grades in their GCSEs, only 54% of those born in August do the same.

These types of statistics understandably lead parents of summer-born children to be concerned about how their child will fare at school. It is important to remember that these figures are averages: every child is different, and there are many summer-borns who flourish and autumn-borns who struggle. But it is concerning that something as arbitrary as the cut-off date for school entry has the potential to affect individuals throughout their lives.

As a result, in 2015 the government changed legislation so that parents of summer-born children now have more flexibility in choosing when their child starts school.

However this could also mean that the gap in age between the youngest and oldest in the year will further widen. As a result the researchers are actively engaging with policymakers about how best to deal with the problem – for example, introducing ‘age-adjusted’ test scores for all children which tell us about a child’s progress relative to others of the same age.

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