The Department for Education’s change to the school calendar for summer-born children is a fascinating example of a policy that attempts to solve a problem by literally putting the clock back, making April into the new September.
In this case the DfE’s pending decision to let parents decide which year a child born between April and August enters school effectively introduces a new starting date for full-time education in England. In doing so it solves one problem – the relative underperformance of summer-born children in GCSE exams – and substitutes new ones.
To take this year as an example: currently, all infants born in the 12 months up to 31 August 2011 would have been able to enter reception classes in state primaries at the start of the new school year. But a child born on 1 September 2011 will wait until 2016 to start reception.
Under the new rules being touted by the schools minister Nick Gibb and the DfE, children born between 1 April and 31 August would have the right to delay reception by a year, and so join the 1 September-born child in starting school in 2016.
If everyone chooses to take up the DfE offer, the cut-off for full-time schooling shifts backwards from 31 August to 1 April.
But not everyone will take up the offer, either because they won’t be aware of it or they won’t be able to. And that’s where things get more complicated than supporters of the policy are prepared to admit.
The problem of summer-born children is a real one, especially for those born in late summer of July and August, who will be in classes learning alongside children 11 or 12 months older. The developmental gap between the average four-year-old and the average five-year-old is substantial.
The older children are physically more able, with more sophisticated motor skills to cope with holding a pencil, for example. They can feed themselves more easily, are likely to concentrate for longer and be able to deal with toilets and getting changed for PE class, as well as having better language skills.
It’s not because they are brighter, it’s because they have a 20-25% headstart on their late summer peers.
The advantage fades as time passes. But research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden and Ellen Greave, showed that the gap in attainment remained significant even in GCSE results, where summer-born pupils are about 5% less likely to get A* to C grades than the autumn-born.
Push those summer-born back a year and their GCSE results will improve, which may have a marginal effect of pushing up overall pass rates. But someone has to be youngest.
Problems arise if not all parents choose to delay entry for summer-born children. Rather than a maximum 12-month age gap, teachers will have to deliver the same curriculum to children as much as 17 months apart, from a 25% age gap to a 35% one.
And while it’s true that some teachers have different year groups in the same class, such as in small rural schools, in this case they will be being taught the same curriculum.
Who is most likely to choose to delay their child’s entry to reception? The usual suspects: anxious middle class parents, understandably eager for their children to do well, especially those with access to an extra year of childcare. But those who have no choice will now be worse off – such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that parents already have a choice. While reception is open to four-year-olds, parents can keep their children out until they reach the compulsory school age of five, if they feel their child is not ready. Schools and local authorities then decide which class it was appropriate for a child to enter. Now that power has been taken away and placed into the hands of parents – another loss of school autonomy.
There is no easy solution to this problem. Children are born throughout the year, but school starts at a fixed time. Barring a radical change to the calendar it’s impossible to suit everyone. But surely it would be better if the starting birthdate for every child shifted to 1 April – or 1 May or 1 June – rather than become another bonus for the informed and determined?
This article was written by Richard Adams Education editor, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th September 2015 18.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010