If a child is born between April 1 and August 31, they do not reach compulsory school age until the term following their 5th birthday. And if a child is born prematurely during this period, their parents are not entitled to any greater legislative rights when requesting Reception class entry at CSAge, and no extra protection against their child missing a year of school later on, than any other parent – the postcode lottery exists for everyone.
It’s true that new text (specifically requested by the charity Bliss during the Code consultation period) was added to section 2.17 of the 2014 School Admissions Code: “Admission authorities must make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned. This will include… where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional…and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely“.
But as the Summer Born Campaign has repeatedly warned, by keeping the admission of summer born children within section 2.17, by condoning the idea that a different (‘miss a year of education or not‘) decision might be made for different summer born children (depending on the subjective views of head teachers and/or administrators), and by legitimising the involvement of medical professionals (costly for parents and/or the NHS) by those admission authorities fundamentally opposed to flexibility (while others agree to all requests regardless of ‘special circumstances’ on the principle that no child should miss a year of education), it only made the existing flexibility unfairness worse.
In fact, numerous parents of premature children joined the SBC facebook group desperate for help when their requests were predictably denied, as a “delighted” Bliss welcomed what it called “greater clarity” in the new Code, and a “fantastic breakthrough“.Summer Born versus Premature Born
Others realised the new Code meant parents had lost their fight to automatically enrol summer born (including premature) children in Reception class at CSAge without penalty too, and although The Times reported it as losing the right to decide when their child starts school (this legal right was not affected), it was nevertheless true in practice – since many parents, not willing to face the risk of a Year 1 start or a missed year of education later on, succumbed to the pressure of an age 4 school start.
In February 2015, concerned that some members of Bliss were against flexible admissions for all summer born children (and for the automatic right to be available only for children born prematurely), I asked Bliss this directly and received the following response:
“As a premature and sick baby charity, we do not have a specific policy on the age of admission to school for all summer born children.”
This was a missed opportunity.
The Summer Born Campaign‘s position is founded on the rights of parents and children that already exist in legislation, and we have continually argued (see our January 2014 Summer Born report) that for the CSAge in England to be in any way meaningful, for the School Admissions Code to be truly “clear, fair and objective“, and for the best interests of children to legitimately be the primary consideration in the context of CSAge school entry and continued access to a full curriculum, no summer born child’s education should be adversely impacted by virtue of parents choosing not to enrol them in school early.
Furthermore, if ALL summer born had the automatic right to enter Reception class at CSAge, and a full education thereafter (remember, many admission authorities threaten to and/or actually force summer born children to skip a year of school later on), then efforts could be focused on the children born prematurely during the spring months.
For example, look at these two recent cases highlighted in the media:
- Twins born in March, eight weeks before their due date
- Boy born in March at 26 weeks weighing 1lb 12oz
This is what section 2.17 (children educated outside their normal age group) should be used for, and this is where ‘individual circumstances of the case‘ could come in. If we accept things as they are, parents of children like these don’t stand a chance of optimising their child’s educational opportunities if they feel a later school start would be more beneficial. Used more appropriately, section 2.17 could allow these parents to request that their spring born child enter school as a ‘summer born‘ child.
This has the potential to help far more children to access formal education – at the developmental age their parents deem appropriate – than the current 2014 Code supports.
Problem with Defining Exceptions
That said, in addition to the legislative points made above, there is another problem with solely focusing on premature ‘summer born‘ children, and it’s a very important one.
Premature birth is just one reason a parent may feel their child is not developmentally ready to start school early; there are many more besides.
In May 2014, I wrote about the case of two children with Downs Syndrome, and how one parent was told their child must enter Year 1 at CSAge and the other (who had successfully secured Reception class entry at CSAge in one school but then moved house) was told their child must now skip a school year and be educated with his ‘correct chronological cohort’.
The rights of these parents and children do not fall into the category of ‘prematurity‘ but, together with prematurity, they are covered by ‘summer born‘ legislation.
Similarly, other reasons a child might be developmentally delayed include: birth injuries, IUGR low birth weight, genetic disorders, chromosone abnormalities, fetal alcohol syndrome, metabolic disorders and maternal infections during pregnancy.
And what of the child born two weeks overdue in September, whose actual due date was in August? Or – if summer born children had automatic admissions flexibility rights – the child born in April, whose due date was in March? Would the parents of these children have the right to request entry to school one year early based on their child’s due date – or indeed be forced to start early? And think of all the mothers who disagree with the estimated due date prescribed by midwives or doctors – this could open a whole new issue in itself. How would it be managed?
‘You Can’t Define Exceptions‘
At the Education Committee‘s evidence check in March 2015, when Alex Cunningham MPP asked, “Is there any way that you could strengthen the guidance to make it clearer to the parent and the admission authority that a particular child is one of the exceptions and admitted differently?”
Mr Gibb replied, “The danger of doing that is that you then start producing an exhaustive list of the criteria that should be applied. I do not think that that would be helpful, because some children who ought to have their entry into formal education delayed will not appear in that list.”
Pat Glass MP said, “I absolutely agree with you for once. You cannot define exceptions.”
And when the MPs discussed the possibility of children entering school according to their due date with the evidence check witnesses, notably, Alex Cunningham MP asked Bliss, “What guidance or rules would you have the Department for Education lay down specifically for premature-born children? You are saying that they are quite different from summer-born children.”
Helen Kirrane replied, “Yes, we believe they are a very distinct sub-group. The recently revised school admissions code and the advice that goes alongside it highlight that premature-born children should be able to delay, or are a group who should be considered for delay, in particular those who fall into the wrong school year owing to the accident of their early birth in the summer months, rather than being born in autumn.”
We know too that others have questioned the feasibility of using a child’s due date for admissions; during last year’s Code consultation, Cheshire East (which “support[ed] the need to agree admission to reception, and not year one, of summer born children“) asked, “how appropriate or necessary this is – if the justification is to be social, educational emotional, is it really necessary to enquire about the original due date. Most births are not on the ‘due date’. Whilst unlikely, this could give rise to requests for earlier admission to school on the basis the child was ‘late’. But moreover, is this a step to far and what information would admission authorities be requesting in support of this? I would argue that the social, emotional and educational argument will cover everything, without having to look into how premature the birth was.”
Recommendations and Action
Following the evidence check, the Education Committee made recommendations that the Summer Born Campaign was highly critical of (Education Committee Recommendations Miss the Mark – 2014 DfE Code and Advice ARE the Problem so Why Recommend Further Implementation?), and we questioned whether a new ministerial promise could be trusted.
Importantly, we also set out why, as a campaign, we were not interested in securing a right of appeal for parents, as this would simply add another layer of stressful bureaucracy without removing the real fear of forced Year 1 entry and no school place at CSAge.
The response from Bliss was very different: “Bliss welcomes these clear recommendations to consider the merits of using a child’s due date rather than their actual birth date in schools admissions policies, as well as address the lack of consistency in different authorities and produce clearer guidance for parents of premature children.
“Bliss would like to see the Government take forward all of the committee’s recommendations, so that premature children are able to start school when they are ready.”
Summer Born Campaign Commitment to Code Clarity for All Children
- Back in 2013, when we were writing our Summer Born report, Michelle Melson contacted the Education Select Committee and begin the process that would eventually lead to the Summer Born Campaign‘s May 2014 meeting with Chairman of the Education Committee. Together we wrote letters and emails to the Chair and other MPs outlining flaws in both the 2012 and 2014 Codes with respect to the admission of summer born children, and we each submitted a number of detailed comment submissions (our final one was published by the Committee) ahead of the March 2015 evidence check.
- In June 2015, Michelle Melson met with Schools Minister Nick Gibb, and reported he was “keen that every child is given the chance to reach their full potential and will be reviewing this [summer born] issue with Ministerial colleagues at the earliest opportunity.”
- In July 2015, Mr Gibb confirmed this commitment in a letter to the Education Select Committee, and again during a BBC television interview; and then a letter to a parent from the DfE said: “The minister has, therefore, decided that it is necessary to amend the School Admissions Code further to ensure that summer born children can be admitted to reception at the age of five if it is in line with their parents’ wishes, and to ensure that those children are able to remain with that cohort as they progress through school.”
In the same month, when Bliss reported on Mr Gibb’s letter to the Committee, it said, “This is fantastic news, and follows Bliss’ appearance at the Education Select Committee on this issue in March 2015. We are delighted and we will be following up with the committee to make sure the special needs of premature children born in the summer months will be met.”
But crucially, if the Minister keeps his word to address the summer born issue, which we are very hopeful he will, then “the special needs of premature children born in the summer months will be met” by default – alongside the needs of every other child born in the summer months – as we believe is only right; and again, this could open up the potential of extra help for parents of children born prematurely in the spring months.
Just as we know that there are many summer born children who do incredibly well academically, and who enjoy every aspect of school life (just read the comments section of any summer born news report), there are also children who are born prematurely and have a very positive experience too. But we also know the opposite is true – for both sets of children – and the evidence clearly demonstrates this.
- Therefore, we maintain that seeking the legal right to avoid being forced to miss a year of school or start school early is a legitimate call from the parents of ALL summer born children, regardless of their individual reasons for wanting to enrol their child in school at CSAge.
Different but the Same
All children are different; they all develop at different rates and in different ways, and the same is true of summer born children.
But summer born children are also different because they reach CSAge in a different academic year to children born at any other time of the year; and they’re different too because currently they don’t have the same right of access to a Reception class education and an uninterrupted curriculum thereafter.
All summer born children deserve the same educational rights and the same admissions application preferences (which currently they don’t have), and these shouldn’t differ by virtue of where they live or where they might relocate to – regardless of which gestational week they were born in.
When You Are Born Matters, yes, but right now, Where You Live can have a greater impact on the educational prospects of a summer born child, which is wholly unfair.
Putting an end to this postcode lottery is long overdue.
Written by author and journalist Pauline Hull