Education Committee ‘Summer Born’ Comments by Pauline Hull

100_2260I have also submitted the comments below to the Education Committee’s ‘Evidence check’ forum on Summer Born Children:

PART 1 – The main point with regards the DfE’s strength of evidence is this – it’s most relevant to the wrong questions, and much of the research was carried out by people who believed compulsory school age (CSAge) to be earlier than it actually is. The evidence focuses on ‘whether’ summer born (SB) children should or need to start school AT compulsory school age (or to ‘delay’ entry as it is colloquially termed), and whether this might reduce ‘relative age effects’. But the question really is this:

WHEN parents decide to enrol their SB child at CSAge (as is their legal right) what is in the child’s best interests? Is it to enter Reception class or Year 1? Is it to be guaranteed access to 12 years of education, equal to every other child, or only 11? And with so many admission authorities (AAs) known to be forcing children to enter Year 1 or ‘skip’ a year of school later on, what evidence has the DfE provided to defend standing by and allowing this to happen – against parents’ wishes, – at the same time as fining and jailing other parents whose children miss school?

Where is the DfE’s evidence that missing Reception (or any other year) is in a child’s best interests? Why does the Code allow an unfair postcode lottery to continue in which SB children from the least articulate and educated families (i.e. least able to fight) will suffer most?

Any future IFS reports will need to be titled, ‘When and Where You are Born Matters’ to account for the myriad of different ways AAs are interpreting the Code: parents are being forced to submit evidence, argue with head teachers, attend decision-making panels, allow educational psychologists into their homes to ‘assess’ 3 year-old children, and even employ solicitors – all because they don’t want to enrol their child in school EARLY. And that’s before the actual (inequitable) admissions process even starts…

In what other country does this happen? If urgent action is not taken, the gap between rich and poor SB children will grow, as (Crawford 2007) warned: “If the option of flexible school starting dates were to be implemented,… it is more likely to be middle-class parents who take advantage of this flexibility, while children from more disadvantaged backgrounds… may not benefit.” Surely ALL children and ALL parents should have real choice at CSAge?

Unsurprisingly, most parents succumb to the pressure and enrol their child at age 4, which the DfE appears to approve of. Michael Gove MP said in 2012: “We want children to be in school learning as quickly as possible”. Well this may be the case, but legally, it’s for parents’ to choose CSAge or earlier, and they should be allowed to exercise their legal duty “to secure education of children of compulsory school age [that] shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude”.

I have not heard a single case of a spring- or autumn-born child being ‘assessed’ or a decision-making ‘panel’ convened to decide whether Reception or Year 1 is most suitable for them when starting school, so why does the DfE persist in condoning a ‘circumstances of the case’ Admissions Code that results in chaos, confusion and inequality for SB children, AND costs the tax-payer a significant amount of money nationwide as countless individual ‘requests’ are administered and fought? Allow parental choice, in line with legislation, and save money not only on admissions, but also significantly reduced SEN and behaviour management costs when there are more children in the class who are ready and able to access the curriculum.

Even new DfE research (DFE-RR398A) boasts of improved educational outcomes adding £1.3 billion to economy, so it is beyond irony when AAs refuse to allow Reception entry at CSAge without evidence of SEN, in full knowledge that these children are significantly more likely to be labelled SEN and underachieve later on. We need a common sense, cost-effective, legal and human solution, not a statistical one (such as age normalising test results to affect league table positions).

Also, with regards SB ‘policy’, the DfE’s own evidence clearly shows that parental “request” for deferral or part-time has led to a forced lowering of CSAge to full-time at age 4 (see my ‘School Starting Age’ comments: 99.9% of children in Reception started at age 4 and 99.6% were full-time compared to a survey where only 38-55% chose this, and 22-32% wanted to wait until CSAge). ‘Request’ in the Code is too weak, and ultimately gives power to AAs at the expense of parents’ wishes.

PART 2 – It might only be a matter of time before a legal challenge is mounted against the DfE by parents whose child is refused access to Reception class at CSAge (or a continued education after this point), especially given all the evidence on comparatively worse educational outcomes for SB children (incl. the Rose Review finding that missing even part of Reception is disadvantageous), and the fact that the DfE has full knowledge of increasing numbers of complaints from parents. It might also be the case that parents whose CSAge requests were refused (possibly with financial consequences), and whose children suffer as a result, take legal action too.

In this context, I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to the Glossary of Legislation, Advice and Judgements outlined on pages 19-27 of the January 2014 Summer Born report: “Compulsory School Age in England has been Lowered to 4 through an Unfair and Unlawful Summer Born Admissions Process“. For example:

* 2012 SAA Code: 2.5 AAs must not limit the grounds on which an appeal can be made (yet the 2014 Code still provides no right of appeal if a SB child is placed in Year 1 instead of Reception).

* 2012 SA Code: 1.1 AAs… must act in accordance with this Code… and relevant human rights and equalities legislation.

* European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights: In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institution, the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration.

* UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child… to their fullest potential.

* If a legal provision is open to more than one interpretation, the interpretation which most effectively serves the child’s best interests should be chosen… a larger weight must be attached to what serves the child best.

* A rule of procedure. Whenever a decision is to be made that will affect a specific child [or] an identified group of children… the decision-making process must include an evaluation of the possible impact (positive or negative) of the decision on the child or children concerned. Assessing and determining the best interests of the child require procedural guarantees. Furthermore, the justification of a decision must show that the right has been explicitly taken into account. In this regard, 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.

* Obligations for States parties: to ensure that the child’s best interests are appropriately integrated and consistently applied in every action taken by a public institution, especially in all implementation measures, administrative and judicial proceedings which directly or indirectly impact on children; to ensure that all judicial and administrative decisions as well as policies and legislation concerning children demonstrate that the child’s best interests have been a primary consideration. This includes describing how the best interests have been examined and assessed, and what weight has been ascribed to them in the decision.

* To ensure compliance, States parties should undertake… Reviewing and, where necessary, amending domestic legislation and other sources of law so as to incorporate article 3, paragraph 1, and ensure that the requirement to consider the child’s best interests is reflected and implemented in all national laws and regulations, provincial or territorial legislation, rules governing the operation of private or public institutions providing services or impacting on children, and judicial and administrative proceedings at any level, both as a substantive right and as a rule of procedure; Upholding the child’s best interests in the coordination and implementation of policies at the national, regional and local levels;

* European Convention on Human Rights: the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own… philosophical convictions; [rights] shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as… birth or other status; Everyone whose rights… are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.

PART 3 – Notably, the DfE is the lead department with responsibility for implementing the UNCRC in England, and yet the draft Code government consultation response (DFE-00636-2014), explained that because ‘many AAs favoured retaining the status quo’, but ‘many parents wanted an automatic right to Reception class at CSAge’, the “changes we are making balance these differing viewpoints”. Aside from the fact that there is no real workable middle ground here – either the Code allows unconditional (or EXACT SAME conditional) access to Reception for all CSAge SB children, or it condones inequality by virtue of postcode – it is not the job of the Code to ‘balance viewpoints’. The purpose of the Code is to accurately represent legislation (incl. UNCRC) and ‘to ensure that school places are allocated and offered in an open and fair way’, incl. “fair access for the most disadvantaged children”. Also, the govt. discussed its proposed changes with an ‘admissions stakeholder group’ that does not list ‘parents’ and did not invite the SB Campaign group to join in, despite serious concerns raised in meetings and email communication over an almost two year period. Don’t parents and children have a ‘stake’ in the 2014 Code?

Fortunately, there are some AAs that say we do:

Hampshire County Council – “If it is intended that admission to Year R is to be so flexible, then the Code should state that Admission authorities should simply go with the parental preference. This would provide a consistent process for parents of summer born children.
Sheffield City Council – “The Guidance is clear that the assumption is to approve a parental request unless there is reason not to. This principle is fully supported as it is recognised that the wishes of parents should be given priority.

EVIDENCE and POLICY

In summary, most research and discussion has taken place in the mistaken context that SB children entering Reception at CSAge is not allowed in England. The DfE has now confirmed it IS, and that ‘exceptional circumstances’ are NOT necessary; therefore research recommendations on ‘whether’ this should be allowed to happen are redundant.

Consider this conundrum:
A major 2013 IFS report that did not directly address admissions flexibility in its findings, and whose authors didn’t actually know such flexibility exists, recommends against giving parents an admissions flexibility that the DfE says parents already have and are at liberty to use, and then the DfE cites this IFS report as ‘useful information’ in its July 2013 SB non-statutory advice, and presents it as ‘evidence’ here for the Education Committee. Is it any wonder parents and AAs are confused?

Also, if we look at the two references cited in the DfE’s ‘Conclusion’ here, neither group of researchers investigated nor examined the benefits of SB children entering Reception at age 4 versus entering at CSAge (in the short or long-term), or indeed the outcomes of SB children entering Reception at CSAge versus entering Year 1 instead. What the researchers actually say is this:

* NfER (Sharp 2009): “There is a large body of research into the effects of age on starting school, which was not examined as part of this review, because of our specific focus on relative age effects.
So while very important, RAEs are a separate issue to what is in the educational best interests of a child who lawfully enters school at CSAge.
* IFS (Crawford 2013): “our findings do not directly address the issue of whether parents should be allowed to delay (rather than defer) their child’s entry to school [but] we would argue against” it.

Nevertheless, the DfE confidently states, “Delaying starts… incurs significant costs [and] the evidence of its effect is mostly neutral or negative“. On balance, it appears that the DfE is giving greater weight to the ‘views’ (not necessarily always relevant ‘evidence’) of economists, researchers and admissions administrators, than to the appropriate implementation of all relevant legislation. Who is the DfE trying to convince that starting school at CSAge is such a bad idea, and why?

I’d like to suggest that in the absence of explicit research comparing SB children entering Reception at CSAge with entering Year 1, one question the DfE might ask is this – with the overwhelming existing evidence of SB disadvantages, whether they complete the whole year of Reception at age 4 or miss part of it (the latter showing a worse effect), which is the more likely outcome of an age 5 start in Reception upon reaching CSAge versus Year 1 – positive or negative?

PART 4 – It would also be useful to know what evidence the DfE is compiling on the in-year admissions of immigrating children from countries that have a different start-date or birth month cut-off to England (this impacts military families too). There is evidence that significant numbers of children are being shoehorned into their ‘correct chronological year groups’, often against their parents’ wishes (and some even with ESL), making them the youngest in their year as well as missing a vital year of education. The primary focus of many AAs is to educate children in 12 month chronological age batches, rather than ensuring that the child’s best interests are met and that they are provided the best opportunity to fulfil their potential.

SUMMARY

Parents of SB children are not actually requesting flexibility; we’re calling for the flexibility that ALREADY EXISTS IN LAW to be formally recognised and applied in a clear, fair and objective way for everyone. And for this there must be clarity, consistency and equality for all SB admissions IN THE CODE – and not via supplementary non-statutory advice that AAs can choose to ignore.

And importantly, it’s worth remembering that: 1) not every parent of a SB child wants to wait until CSAge before enrolling their child in school, so this will not necessarily ‘shift’ the SB problem on to a different group of children; on the contrary, with more children in the classroom able to access the work with fewer behavioural and support issues, this could improve the learning environment for everyone; 2) there are countless SB adults who thrived in school and say they did not suffer at all, and so their parents may not have chosen the option of a CSAge start (also consider the parents of some September-born children who say their child was ready to start earlier than CSAge).

Finally, due to space constraints, I’d like to ask the Education Committee to please read some of the recent and continuing articles (incl. a compilation of additional research, evidence and quotes that are relevant to SB policy but not included here) on the website http://www.summerbornchildren.org

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

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One Response to Education Committee ‘Summer Born’ Comments by Pauline Hull

  1. Pingback: NAHT guest on BBC News gets Summer Born Fact so Wrong it Proves our Point | summerbornchildren

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