prophecy, locking the child into a cycle of failure' ALMOST everyone now knows that summer-born children tend to get slightly worse exam results than their older classmates. But new research suggests that the youngest pupils in a year group also stand a greater chance of being categorised as having special educational needs.
One theory is that the youngest children may not be ready to cope with the increasing formality of the early-years curriculum, producing a downward spiral of low self-esteem and failure. Another is that teachers find it difficult to make allowances for age when judging pupils' abilities.
"What is certain is that whenever there is some form of selection, the youngest members of a year group are particularly vulnerable to inequities of assessment," says Geoffrey Wilson of the University of Birmingham. "This may affect their equality of opportunity for advancement in their educational careers and, subsequently, their employment prospects."
When University of Birmingham researchers analysed the gender and birth dates of 178 pupils with special educational needs in a large urban comprehensive school, they found that boys outnumbered girls by almost two to one. There were also fewer autumn births (September to December) than spring (January to April) or summer (May to August) birth dates.
Around 16 per cent of both the spring and summer-born pupils were classified as having special needs, compared with only 10 per cent ofpupils with autumn birthdays. Yet the younger children were actually more intelligent than those with autumn birthdays, judging by scores in the Cognitive Abilities Test taken by SEN pupils in Years 7 and 8.
The researchers say that previous studies suggest that younger children may fail because teachers underestimate their abilities and over-rate older pupils. Teachers are more likely to consider that the younger children have emotional and behavioural problems, for instance. They also see them as less able and more immature for their age.
Teachers may subconsciously label summer-born children as immature because they have poorer co-ordination, shorter attention spans and co-operate less well with other children than their older peers. Unfortunately, these inaccurate assessments can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, locking the child into a cycle of failure.
Arguably the most disturbing conclusion that research has produced to date is that the current emphasis on formal academic skills in the early years is ignoring the different rates at which pupils develop.
"This policy may create a situation where increasing numbers of children consider themselves to be failures at an early age," Geoffrey Wilson warns. "The most vulnerable sub-groups, such as the summer-born, would, of course, be most likely to suffer."
"The Effects of Season of Birth, Sex and Cognitive Abilities on the Assessment of Special Educational Needs," by Geoffrey Wilson, school of education, University of Birmingham, appears in the current issue of Educational Psychology, Vol 20, No 2, 2000.