Education Committee ‘Summer Born’ Comments by Michelle Melson

100_2260Michelle Melson has also submitted the comments below to the Education Committee’s ‘Evidence check’ forum on Summer Born Children:

PART 1 –… the point at which the other children in their year group are moving up from the reception class to year one.” Let’s not forget that those summer born children that are moving up to Year 1 at this point started school EARLY, prior to CSA. Summer born children starting school in Reception class at CSA sit perfectly within the legal meanings of reception class and relevant age group.

Regarding the ‘flexibility’ that the DfE is espousing in their paragraph 2. Parents of summer born children may only ‘request’ that their child is admitted to the reception class upon reaching compulsory school age. These parents have to endure an entirely separate and different application/admissions process to that of parents of children born at any other time of the year. Clear? No. Fair? No. Discriminatory? Yes, absolutely.
How each admission authority interprets the ‘individual circumstances of the case’ varies widely across England, and between (or even within) admission authorities, sometimes even for the SAME child; and as more and more schools become their own admission authority the situation for parents becomes increasingly complicated, unclear and difficult.

Authorities themselves are in disagreement and confused as to what “the circumstances an admission authority should consider when making a decision” actually means, as demonstrated in the responses the DfE received from Local Authorities to its recent consultation on the School Admissions Code. Responses here.

A couple of perfectly feasible examples based on the experiences of some 1700+ members of the campaign group ‘flexible school admissions for summer born children’:

Example 1 – Parents of summer born Child A live in Norfolk and will not be sending their child to school until CSA and have three school ‘preferences’. Preference 1 is an academy and the parents have children already attending the school, Preference 2 is a voluntary aided school, Preference 3 is a community school – all three schools have a different admissions authority. The parents cannot however list these three preferences on an application to the home authority without first entering into a separate dialogue with each school admission authority to see if their request will be granted – a process that no other parent has to go through. After initially being ignored, protracted discussions with each admission authority ensue (despite the relatively small admissions window). Preference 1 advises that Child A should start school prior to compulsory school age (not a decision that is theirs to make), Preference 2 advises that there is no ‘evidence’ as to why Child A should not miss reception class and go straight into Year 1, dismisses the available research as generic and in fact cites the onset of puberty as one of the reasons for not allowing reception entry. Preference 3 advises that schools are capable of differentiating the curriculum for individual pupils and that appropriate SEN support will be made available. All three preferences deny the child access to Reception, an entry class. The parents now either have to acquiesce in order that Child A can attend a preferred school, preferably the school in which Child A’s siblings attend, or they have to enter into negotiations with other schools in (or even out of) their area, where they are less likely to gain a place. However the admissions window is drawing to a close, there is no time left to contact every school in the county which is its own admission authority. Places are allocated, there is no place available in year 1 (reception denied) in any of the preferred schools and Child A is allocated a Year 1 place in any school which has a place available.

Example 2 – Parents of summer born Child B live in Hampshire. All three of their preferred schools are community schools and the LEA is the admissions authority. The parents request is answered quickly, professionally and granted. Child B’s best interests and the wishes of the parents have been the primary factor and given greater weight than the status quo or administrative concerns. The LEA does however advise Child B’s parents that whilst Child B will remain in the same year group within Hampshire’s maintained schools, there is a chance that should they move schools either during primary phase education or upon secondary transfer to any school for which Hampshire is not the admission authority (more and more feasible as schools convert to academy status), Child B may be required to miss a year of school and join their ‘correct chronological age group’.

PART 2 – I am bemused by the evidence the DfE has presented to back-up its policy. Bemused as to why they think it is relevant. There is no mention of CSA in the evidence presented, and the evidence appears to be being presented to demonstrate why children should be starting school prior to CSA, despite primary legislation. IFS researchers were not clear on what CSA is and the flexibilities that exist, and furthermore, When you are born matters: Evidence for England, IFS (2013), as I understand it, focuses on the consequences of deferral, not delay. Hence the report recommendation to deny parents more flexibility over the age at which their children start school is aimed at the option of starting school later in the same academic year (flexibility which the DfE has retained). This recommendation is not relevant where children would enter reception the following academic year at CSA.

Rather, the evidence the DfE has presented regarding reduced length of schooling having a detrimental impact, is a clear indicator as to why their policy is flawed – children should not be made to miss a whole year of their education by schools and/or admissions authorities at any point during their education simply because they started school at CSA.

DfE’s Paragraph 4: “However, Crawford et al (2013) also find little evidence that detrimental effects (on likelihood of being in employment, on earnings, and on measures of wellbeing) persist in adulthood.” The evidence used here to justify their policy on summer born admission in terms of qualifications (i.e. less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs or equivalents at grades A*-C) not having an impact is in stark contrast to the DfE’s policy regarding participation of young people in education, employment and training; “Participating in education or training for longer means young people are more likely to attain higher levels of qualifications and have increased earnings over their lifetime, better health and improved social skills. This in turn contributes to a more highly skilled, productive, and internationally competitive workforce.” (DfE 2013, amended 2014, Statutory guidance Participation of young people: education, employment and training). Is there enough destination data available to validate either of these views?

DfE’s Paragraph 6: Age adjusted test-scores is not the answer, and there are many other considerations to factor in if the DfE plans to tinker with these. Fundamentally though, age-adjusting test scores is not mentioned in, and therefore not relevant to, the admissions policy the DfE is using this suggestion to justify. Curious though, how many extra points might the forced loss of reception class be worth? Would it be a sliding-scale? How many extra points for instance is Year 1 worth when a child who started school in reception class at compulsory school age has been made to skip Year 1 entirely at the behest of a new head teacher, purely to ensure children are educated in their ‘chronological age group’?
This has happened, the DfE is aware that this has happened, but they continually defer to ‘localism’. How many points might Year 7 be worth when a school or admissions authority forces a child to miss this year entirely upon secondary transfer?

Does the DfE hold data on those children that have been forced by an admission authority or school to skip an entire year? Or children arriving from overseas (including service families) who are placed in chronological age group regardless of years of education to date? Have they all been accounted for or tracked in any way? Or have those children simply slipped through the net? The researchers cited in the DfE’s evidence do not appear to be aware of these children

Considering that there is currently an emphasis to reduce attainment gap, the suggestion to tinker with test scores would only do this artificially; it would ‘appear’ reduced, but it wouldn’t actually be reduced.

PART 3 – Nowhere in their evidence does the DfE refer to the UNCRC, perhaps this is because their policy does not ensure the best interests of children IS a primary consideration, does not ensure that if a legal provision is open to more than one interpretation, the interpretation which most effectively serves the child’s best interests is chosen (as different admissions authorities are at liberty to come to a different decision for the SAME child), or ensure that whenever a decision is to be made that will effect AN IDENTIFIED GROUP OF CHILDREN (summer borns), that Article 3, paragraph 1 will be adhered to.

Neither does their policy ensure a procedural guarantee that admission authorities assessing and determining the best interests of the child will not be skewed by personal opinion of clerks, administrative concerns and the general desire of admission authorities to keep the status quo. “States parties shall EXPLAIN how the right has been respected in the decision, that is, what has been considered to be in the child’s best interests; what criteria it is based on; and how the child’s interests have been weighed against other considerations, be they broad issues of policy or individual cases.”  This failure to mention the UNCRC at all, by the very department responsible for ensuring its implementation not only in England but across the UK is incredulous. There is no evidence whatsoever that I can find that suggests that it is in the best interests of any child to be forced to skip an entire year (any year) of school because of their age.

The document they have supplied to the Education Select Committee makes mention of parent’s wishes but the draft code has been amended to say ‘views’ and references ‘medical’ evidence. Perhaps the phrase ‘parent’s wishes’ aligns too much with the wording in Section 9 of the Education Act 1996 for the DfE’s liking. As for parents having to provide evidence, medical or otherwise, absolute age is no reason for any family to be working with any kind of professional.

The Rose review said “The preferred pattern of entry to reception classes should be the September immediately following a child’s fourth birthday” because some summer born children were being made to miss one or even two terms of reception class. The Rose review also recognized that “some parents would like their children to enter reception class in the September after their fifth birthday rather than entering Year 1” and “It is important to be clear that this is not a recommendation to lower the statutory school starting age rather than give parents a greater choice, and to achieve a better match of provision to need in the Reception Year”.

It was deemed detrimental for a child to miss even one term of reception class, yet the DfE is ensuring that a child can be forced by an admissions authority to miss the entire reception year, solely for starting school AT compulsory school age.

Does a child have the right to a continuous curriculum? If the best interests of the child are the primary consideration then yes, and yet a child can be made to miss an entire year, any year, at the behest of a head teacher or an admission authority. The DfE is fully aware of this practice yet has failed to safeguard children at all from this appalling practice.

Re the DfE’s paragraph 9, Parental choice and cost implications. The %’s taken from the TNS-BMRB omnibus survey, which took place between 10-16th December 2009, page 123 Q1, Table 1.
It was a survey of 552 parents; strip out the ‘don’t know’ and ‘not applicable’ figures and this leaves us with survey results from 375 parents and only then do the figures align with that of the DfE’s. Is 375 a representative sample? To put that figure into perspective, 375 would be around a fifth of members of the Summer Born Campaign alone. The DfE appear to thinks it’s important to include survey results of parents in its evidence; however parent’s views are clearly not that important to the DfE. At no point was anyone from the Summer Born Campaign contacted to represent the views of 1700+ parents during the additional discussions they had with stakeholders during the consultation process.

PART 4 – The standard line from the DfE to parents of summer borns either being forced to miss reception class or indeed any other year, tends to be that the Department would be able to intervene only if it appeared that an admission authority had failed to comply with a legal duty. So, admission authorities and schools only have to be ‘seen’ to have considered the circumstances of the case and a whole year forcibly missed is deemed acceptable. Yet a parent can be fined or given a custodial sentence for such a length of unauthorised absence.

Admission authorities are not adverse to ‘threatening’ parents who seek to request that their child enters reception class at CSA; their request may not be granted and they are not likely to receive a place at their preferred school ‘as Year 1 is likely to be full’, the child will have to sit SATs / GCSEs based on age (not true), their child will have to skip a year to ‘catch up’, their child will not be eligible to access the grammar school system. The DfE is aware of this and is not mitigating against these threats by providing a uniform and fair admissions policy for this particular group of children.

Has the DfE considered the cost implications when summer born children are “significantly more likely to be identified as having a special educational need than their older classmates.” (DfE 2010) and are therefore more likely to require additional support to be put in place; support that may not be needed if a parents requests were an automatic right?
Unlikely: “The Department does not have data available on the cost by way of funding in relation to providing additional SEN support available for summer and autumn born pupils” (DfE 2013)
The younger children in each year cohort are more likely to be described as having SEN (Garry Squires, Neil Humphrey, Alexandra Barlow & Michael Wigelsworth (2012)
The DfE also don’t appear to have considered the “greater risk of being bullied”, “a higher incidence of suffering extreme (and rare) levels of bullying”, or that more formal learning can lead to higher anxiety and lower self-esteem (DfE 2010).
-The youngest children in each school cohort are over-represented in referrals to mental health services (Shipra Berg and Erlend Berg 2013)

Has the DfE considered the cost implications of actually implementing this policy? Some local authorities (just two for example are Poole and Croydon) are setting up special ‘panels’ to determine whether or not there is something ‘wrong’ with a child, that the child is atypical in order for that child to access Reception class at CSA, and/or employing the services of solicitors to fight parents.

PART 5 – Conclusion. The evidence the DfE has presented is not related at all to the admissions policy which allows some children automatic access to Reception class at CSA, but not all. It allows children to be forced to miss a year of education, be it Reception class or any other year. If anything, the evidence presented regarding missing education being detrimental to a child goes against their policy. Let’s not forget CSA is what it is; children should not be penalised simply because they start school at, and not before Compulsory School Age.

What is fundamentally clear from the DfE’s response is their playing down of England’s compulsory school age (CSA) as stated in law. It is only briefly mentioned in paragraph number 1 in the context of suggesting that summer born children starting school AT CSA should ordinarily be placed straight into Year 1. Their response does not make clear in any clear way that Reception class is an entry class into primary schools, that this is when the admission round takes place for a ‘relevant age group’ (i.e ‘reception class’), during which parents state in their applications their statutory minimum three school preferences. Their policy therefore appears to be a reflection of ‘state’ view; whether ministerial, civil servant or advisor I cannot say but would refer you to a comment made by Michael Gove to the Education Select Committee’s #Askgove in January 2012 – “We want children to be in school learning as quickly as possible.” Who ‘we’ referred to was never clear and Mr Gove’s comments did not reflect the fact that it is a PARENT’S/CARER’S decision whether their child starts school prior to or at CSA. It’s evidently clear that CSA in England has been lowered by the back door to age four.
Admission authorities and the DfE have stated that schools can differentiate the curriculum and provide additional support. I would ask how anyone could consider that a child’s best interests would be better served in Year 1 via differentiation and support rather than Reception class.

There is no evidence to show that it is beneficial for a child to be forced to forfeit a year (any year), yet this is what their policy allows.

I kindly request that the Education Select Committee considers both the January 2014 Summer Born Report, which explores this issue in greater depth and also articles on the website summerbornchildren.org

References:
-European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights
-UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
-Committee on the Rights of the Children General comment No. 14 (2013) CRC/C/GC/14
-School Standards and Framework Act 1998
-Education Act 1996
-DfE (2010): Month of Birth and Education. Schools Analysis and Research Division. Research Report DfE RR017.
-DfE (2013, amended 2014): Statutory guidance Participation of young people: education, employment and training
-Garry Squires, Neil Humphrey, Alexandra Barlow & Michael Wigelsworth (2012): The identification of special educational needs and the month of birth: differential effects of category of need and level of assessment, European Journal of Special Needs Education, DOI:10.1080/08856257.2012.711961
-Shipra Berg and Erlend Berg (2013): The youngest children in each school cohort are over-represented in referrals to mental health services
-When you are born matters: Evidence for England, IFS Report R80, Nuffield Foundation

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