New research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry today (‘Younger children experience lower levels of language competence and academic progress in the first year of school: evidence from a population study‘) further confirms what is already well established about the experiences of many (not all) summer born children, and has received widespread media attention.
The Summer Born Campaign contacted the study’s lead author, Professor Courtenay Norbury, as she is quoted talking about the “constant dilemma for parents over whether to delay sending them to school” and her own view that “starting school young may be less of a problem if the curriculum is more in line with children’s developmental levels“.
- I asked what she believes is in the best interests of summer born children whose parents do decide to exercise their legal right and enrol them in school at CSAge rather than enrolling them early?
“If parents exercise their right to hold a summer born child back a year, then I strongly believe that the child should start in reception and continue with that year group throughout the school years. I don’t think skipping a year or leaving an established peer group is a good idea.” Professor Norbury
- Those of us who chose or are choosing to enrol our children at CSAge would not describe our choice as ‘holding our children back‘ but we understand that the use of more negative language in this context is an entrenched cultural issue in England.
Professor Norbury also said (my bold and comments beneath):
“However, in the paper we highlight that holding a child back requires significant financial resources to either fund an extra year of childcare or have one parent stay home. So at a population level, this can cause problems as children from more impoverished backgrounds (which in itself is a risk factor for poorer attainment at school) have no option but to go to school early.”
- I have highlighted this issue before and agree completely that the current system exacerbates the gap between rich and poor children. However, this can and must be resolved, because it remains the case – whether experts would recommend it or not, – that there are now increasing numbers of summer born children entering Reception class at CSAge (the DfE’s Code and primary legislation both allow it and Education Ministers have repeated their support for this flexibility to exist). It’s the reality and it’s happening so while curriculum changes would be wholeheartedly welcomed by this campaign, the changes would be equally welcome for those of us who decide to enrol our (still very young) children at age 5 instead of age 4.
“Our paper is really questioning the early years curriculum – if only half the children in the country can meet the academic targets, there is probably something wrong the targets, not the children! The UK is unusual in starting formal literacy education before the age of 6 and I can’t see any good reason to do so. In our study, oral language (vocabulary, grammar, narrative abilities) was by far the best predictor of scores on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. So we argue that focusing that first year of school on developing oral language is likely to raise standards for all children and give them a good foundation to tackle literacy and other aspects of the curriculum in later years.”
- As above, we agree completely with adopting a more oral approach to learning in Reception class (this is what happens in Kindergarten in Canada incidentally), but again, it should remain the parents’ decision whether their child accesses and school curriculum ‘at’ or ‘before’ CSAge.
“It is also important to stress that although across the population being summer born increases risk for difficulties with school achievement, the effect is small and of course not all summer born children will have difficulties. But many will not have developed the language skills needed to tackle the curriculum, not because there is anything wrong with them, but just because they are young and there is a world of difference between a four year old and a five year old!”
- It is absolutely true that not all summer born children will have difficulties, and this goes beyond measures of “school achievement” of course (social and emotional are also important considerations), but this fact is already well established – hence the reason for flexibility in admissions. You will always read about parents who knew their summer born child was ‘ready’ to start school and have no regrets, or summer born adults who feel they actually ‘benefitted’ from being the youngest, and this just proves that different school entry decisions work for different children. For the child, for the parents, and for society, flexibility means fewer summer born children “will have difficulties“; we just need to make it an option for all now, and not just the fortunate few.
What the Research says:
• Younger children in a school year are at higher risk of educational adversity and psychiatric disorder.
• Clinically significant language impairment also confers broad risk for emotional and behavioural disorder and scholastic underachievement.
• In this first UK population study of language at school entry, younger age is associated with teacher perceptions of poorer language competence and co-occurring language and behavioural problems.
• Young age is also associated with poorer academic progress in the first year of school, though language ability is the best indicator of scholastic achievement.
• Fewer than 5% of children with language and behavioural deficits achieve good academic progress in their first year of school.
• Younger children at school entry may not have sufficient language and behaviour skills to meet the academic and social demands of the education system, creating increased need for specialist clinical resources.
• At a population level, reducing academic practices that exacerbate the age effect and enhancing oral language proficiency in the early years should reduce referrals to specialist clinical services.
This study provides compelling evidence that younger children in reception classes are perceived to have lower levels of language competence, more behaviour problems and more limited academic progress than older peers. We suggest that these challenges reflect a mismatch between developmental competence and academic expectations. Different strategies to address this concern could be evaluated using randomised controlled trials. While the unique contribution of age is small, strategies that effectively attenuate the relative age effect could reap substantial savings to clinical and education budgets at a population level. Approximately 730,000 children are born in England each year, and our data suggest a 50% increase in the number of younger children identified as having possible language deficits at the end of reception. Thus, an extra 36,500 children could be identified as having poor language, behaviour problems and educational difficulties in their first year of school, simply because of their younger age. Reducing the level of difficulty experienced by the youngest children in the class could therefore enable scarce clinical resources to be targeted more effectively.