This month, an article in the TES asked, ‘How can we help summer born children to keep up?’, and some of the issues it raised have prompted me to again clarify many of the myths surrounding parental calls for greater admissions flexibility.
To begin with, I am not convinced the article asks the right question; but moreover, given Helen Ward’s concluding thoughts on the matter (whether age-adjustment testing would really make the system fairer, or is it just that parents “want our children to be first”), the article ultimately focuses on the traditional (more tangible, but narrow) measures of how children are ranked during their school education and is therefore in danger of undervaluing what is truly of most importance to the parents of summer-born children…
And that is, whether or not our children are ready for school when they’ve only just turned 4, whether they enjoy and are happy at school, and whether they have an opportunity to thrive in all aspects of school life (not just academic), rather than merely cope.
We must keep remembering that it is NOT ALL summer-born who are adversely affected by being youngest in their year. Not all will have SEN statements, not all will be bullied, not all will suffer self-esteem issues, not all will feel behind emotionally, physically or academically. Therefore, common sense alone dictates that the solution does not lie in a universal testing ‘fix’ for all summer-born children. Education experts recognize this, and given that the younger the school starting age, the greater the effect of relative age, early years specialists such as Dr. David Whitebread and Dr. Richard House have persistently proposed increasing the age at which children start school. But in the meantime, it makes far more sense – where we can identify those 4-year-olds who are evidently not as emotionally or socially developed, or as mature, as their chronological peers – to allow at least these children to start in reception one year later (where they would effectively lie somewhere among the autumn-born children in that class).
Benefits to Admissions Flexibility
There would very likely be no differentiation issues for teachers (outside the existing need to accommodate various learning abilities in any given class), and in fact, there would be far fewer problems for their teaching work load, given that these summer-born children would now be less likely to require costly interventions such as extra classroom assistance, less likely to need SEN attention and statements, and less likely to exhibit adverse behaviour. Children who are happy, engaged and ready for school are so much easier to teach in a class size of thirty. And if, in the unlikely event that it is later considered to be in the child’s best interests to move ‘up’ a year, this is evidently much easier to arrange than moving the child ‘down’ a year.
Flexibility avoids the problem Northern Ireland is currently facing, where because all children born in July and August have to wait until the following school year before starting in reception, the ‘summer-born’ problem has simply shifted back to the children born in May and June. There is now a parent-led campaign in N.I. to allow greater flexibility for these new ‘youngest in their year’ children to be allowed to wait a further year too. It’s also worth remembering that the problems cited (in the TES) in Edinburgh appear to have had less to do with admissions and issues around flexibility, and more to do with parents choosing to opt out of a unpopular school curriculum, which is something different entirely.
Reception class may be play-based but it still includes number work and learning to read (even for those children attending part-time). The latter involves children learning phonics, and the fact is that some children are just not ready or able for these more formal subjects at 4, and worse than that, it can actually put some children off learning, and school, at a very early age. Some less mature children simply don’t have the attention span or interest for more structured learning and academic subjects, and we know that fewer boys than girls go on to enjoy reading in the long term. By allowing parents of summer-born children the option of waiting until their child is 5 before they start reading, this will benefit their children in the long term. Children in other countries with very good educational standards are not taught to read until significantly older ages, so it certainly won’t hurt to let our children wait too. What can so easily damage our children is when they are forced to join year 1 with children who have a whole foundation year of phonics learning and number work already under their belt.
Serious Flaws in Age-Adjusting Tests
This is a widely criticized idea, but if examiners did re-grade pupils’ marks to reflect the month in which they were born, they’d need to consider the year of birth too, given that many private schools and some of the more progressive state schools already operate a flexible admissions policy. As such, there are many summer-born pupils in England who are in fact the eldest in their academic year group, and not the youngest.
How would age-adjusting exam marks work for summer-born children who achieve A* grades at GCSE and A-level? Do we just conclude that they are the lucky ones who had the right interventions or handling, and this helped them catch up and keep up? In addition, since we know that some summer-born children are not disadvantaged by being youngest in their year, then to make indiscriminate adjustments to the exam scores for all would effectively be discriminating against non summer-born children; this is surely just as unfair.
How does adjusting exam marks address the well-documented issues for some summer-born children that lie beyond the comparatively narrow metric of academic results? For example, sporting opportunities, self-confidence and self-esteem, being labelled (often inappropriately) with ‘SEN’, feeling too young at each stage of development (e.g. during the teen years). Constantly looking to ‘test results’ for the answer speaks volumes about perceptions of what’s important about a child’s life experience.
The TES article says the “evidence is mounting that for summer-born children, the key word is not ‘age’ but ‘tests’, and I’d like to offer a reason for this. If the majority of research concentrates its investigations on more tangible and readily accessible measures such as tests and exam scores (albeit at different ages), then without doubt, the evidence on tests will mount. Less tangible but arguably more important effects on summer-born children (as mentioned above), which are far harder to measure and assess in any child – at any age – are much less likely to appear in the literature. But this doesn’t mean they are not present or that they are not vitally important. As with all research, if we don’t look, we won’t find; and if the majority of what we do look for and find relates to tests (often because such data are just easier for researchers to measure), then it follows that journalists will see “mounting” evidence in this one area. Also, as I noted in my assessment of the IFS report earlier this year, even when there is no evidence at all in their ‘test’ data to refute the benefits of admissions flexibility, researchers will still draw conclusions on flexibility, regardless.
Support for Age-Adjusting Tests is Negligible
The TES article states that “the political will does not seem to be there” for age-adjusting, but I’d add that more importantly, teachers, parents and pupils are highly critical of this idea too. Look at any media news report on the subject (see In the News), and the online comments posted beneath these articles speak volumes (criticism is evident in this Mumsnet post too). Summer-born adults who did perfectly well at school say adjusting marks insults their intelligence and hard work; teachers point out that there are too many other factors at play besides age that can affect a child’s eventual exam grades; parents point out that it’s a slippery slope (if we adjust for summer-born children, what about other ‘disadvantaged’ groups); but perhaps most notably, summer-born adults who did suffer at school talk about far wider-ranging issues than their final exam results (e.g. confidence, self-esteem, always feeling ‘behind/slow/immature’ alongside their peers). So why is this idea getting such attention? Parents of summer-born children haven’t asked for it and we don’t want it.
Good Teachers Already Help Summer-Born Children
If teachers were not already adept at identifying and helping summer-born children throughout their school education, the data demonstrating worse outcomes for summer-born children would very likely be much worse. The problems related to a child’s comparative age are not something most teachers discovered through reports and national data – especially those teaching in the early years; it’s part of their job to know about the issue. But while these teachers deserve credit (together with the parents of summer-born children who have supported and helped them too), even the best teachers in the best schools cannot protect every summer-born child against adverse effects. Put simply, some children will just never quite catch up, never quite keep up; and ironically, of all the potential problems they might face, academic attainment can often be the easiest of all to work on and overcome. This is perhaps why the age difference in later tests starts to ‘wash out’ in some studies, yet what we don’t always know (because it’s far more difficult to measure) is how these children are faring in other aspects of their lives…
Red-Shirting Fears About Pushy Parents
This is actually a genuine concern – that wealthy, middle-class parents (however many of them there truly are now…) may be in a better position to allow their summer-born children to wait until they’re 5 before starting school. Indeed an IFS report in 2007 identified these very same concerns, and suggested that flexibility for poorer parents should be supported by nursery places equivalent to school hours (summer-born children who wait to start school until age 5 are currently entitled to 15 hours of free early learning per week).
This may indeed be something the government wants to look at, but in the meantime, the debate about summer-born children cannot continue in a vacuum – pretending that wealthier parents are not already able to exert huge influence on their children’s educational experiences and outcomes. Obviously, there are parents who can afford to privately educate, but looking at the state sector alone – wealthier parents can afford to buy the more expensive homes closest to the ‘best’ schools in the area; they can spend hundreds, even thousands, of pounds on home tutors to prepare their children for exams; they can afford educational visits and sports activities (in the UK and abroad) during the school holidays; well educated parents are more likely to read to, and with, their children at home; professional parents with good networks can help older children gain valuable work experience; and so the list goes on.
Our educational system is not equal, and it’s not fair – but in terms of summer-born children, there is a clear distinction in parents’ minds, as the TES article states. We are not trying gain an advantage or wanting our children to be first; we are trying to avoid the very well-documented disadvantage for some children – and to ensure that any resulting systemic changes don’t then unfairly disadvantage non summer-born children too.
It’s also worth pointing out that in my experience of communicating with summer-born parents, they don’t fit the perception of wealthy, pushy, middle-class parents at all. For example, they include a single mother who has just taken out a loan so that her son (born on August 31st) can start in reception at a private school; there are parents with low and average incomes, parents who do not own their own home, and parents who have made financial sacrifices in order to stay at home with their children. I’m sure there are parents with money too, but one thing they all have in common – ‘it’s not about the exam results’.
Eventually, it may be that checks need to be put in place to ensure that admissions flexibility – for the legitimate reasons it exists in law – is not abused; but given the comparatively early starting age of 4 in England, this is unlikely to present itself as a huge problem. If it does, then the government could look again at flexibility. However my own feeling is that there is an almost Armageddon-like fear of stepping outside an entrenched 12-month chronological age range for admissions and back into the 16-month developmental age range that the law still allows. This fear of change clearly needs to be expunged, so that ‘young-for-their-years’ summer-born children can have a better chance in school than they do now.
The Law Already Allows Flexibility for Summer-Born Admissions
This campaign is unusual because we don’t want something ‘new’ or something ‘different’ to what is already permissible in law; we just want the Department for Education to make things clearer to admissions authorities (e.g. with its Q&A advice), for the latter to better understand the law, and to act on it. The Department for Education says it’s unlawful for admissions authorities to have a blanket policy of Year 1 admission for all summer-born children that start school age 5, yet this is exactly what many summer-born parents are faced with. We want the government to ensure that a flexible system of school entry (designed many years ago in recognition that developmental age – not just chronological age – should be considered for children entering primary school) is not allowed to be abandoned in favour of a one-size-fits-all age 4 school start.
Perhaps more than wanting to accept that there is an immediately workable and cost-effective approach to the summer-born problem (i.e. allowing them to enter reception class age 5), debate over this issue seems stubbornly determined to find the answer somewhere else entirely.
So culturally entrenched has it now become in England that ‘the more children learn, the earlier, the better’, it appears shocking and controversial when some parents want their children to wait a while, to simply play, grow and mature a little longer, before introducing them to a much more structured learning environment. It’s what the Heads and teachers in private schools (and an increasing number of state schools) are doing, and it doesn’t have an adverse effect on their summer-born children at all – or on all the other children being taught alongside them; quite the opposite, in fact.
I agree with Helen Ward’s conviction that we need to look at the whole picture for summer-born children, but this has to mean looking far beyond crude test results. I also believe it’s possible – and indeed essential – to look at the whole while still looking at the individual too. This is because, even with the greatest will in the world, unless we keep a close eye on children as individuals, there will always be a sizeable minority who slip through the cracks.
Parents of summer-born children are today more likely to know what and where these cracks are, and we know our own children. Please, afford us the right to hold on to our children, and to help prevent them from falling down cracks that will have substantially narrowed by the time they are 5 years old.
Written by author and journalist Pauline Hull