Summer-born children will have the right to start school in Reception at the age of 5, under changes announced by schools minister Nick Gibb today.
The proposal follows previous failed efforts to introduce more flexibility to the admissions system.
Children usually start school in the September after they turn 4, but parents of summer-born children can ask to delay entry for a year. However, many schools and councils currently insist these pupils go straight into Year 1 and miss out on the Reception year altogether. The new system will allow them to instead join Reception.
In an open letter today, Mr Gibb said he is setting out the government's "intention to amend the School Admissions Code to ensure that summer-born children do not miss out on an important year of schooling".
He described the current system as “flawed”, saying that: “[Parents] either feel forced to send their child to school before they are ready and before they are required to do so, or else miss out on their Reception year at school where the essential teaching of early reading and arithmetic takes place.
“I have also heard that some children who are admitted out of their normal age group are later required to miss a year and move up against their wishes to join the other children of the same age range.”
Mr Gibb added that most parents are happy for their child to go to school in the September after their fourth birthday, but a small number want their child to be admitted a year later. The minister also said the issue has serious implications and takes up a disproportionate amount of time.
A full public consultation will be conducted and the changes are subject to parliamentary approval. But schools and local authorities are being encouraged to take immediate action, in advance of the changes.
Rosie Dutton – whose five-year-old daughter Olivia will be joining Reception at Heathfield Infants School in Tamworth, Staffordshire, tomorrow – is the spokeswoman for the Summer Born Campaign.
“This is very welcome news," she said. "The campaign group has maintained for a few years that there has never been an excuse to force a child to miss a year of school.
“In my case, we talked to Olivia about going to school last year when her friends from preschool were going to school, but she didn’t show an interest. The difference this year is unbelievable. She is much more confident and bursting with excitement about going to school.
"I just wanted her to have the chance to be a child for a little bit longer without that formal pressure of school. I know that Reception year is play-based, but I was also thinking about the jump to Year 1. I just wanted to give her as long as possible.”
Previous studies have shown that, compared with children born in September, children born in August are less likely to achieve five good GCSEs and to go to university.
And 12.5 per cent of August-born children are labelled at age 11 as having mild special educational needs, compared with 7.1 per cent of those born in September
David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology of education at the University of Cambridge, said: "It is quite clear that the extent of the summer-born effect is more severe in the UK than in many other countries, and the evidence suggests this arises from the young age at which children here start school.
“In countries with these later starting ages there is a very much reduced summer-born effect, or none at all, and there is no evidence from international comparisons that children in the UK are better educated than children from elsewhere. Indeed, we have been steadily slipping down the international league tables over the last 20 years or so.”
But Dieter Wolke, professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at the University of Warwick, said: "There is now quite conclusive scientific research that those who are the youngest in class do more poorly academically across primary school and until secondary school. There is indeed a gradual impact of age within class.
“The major question is how to deal with it? Delaying school entry means that the child is kept back for a year. Thus those born in June to August would become the oldest in the class if held back. The question is – does that now disadvantage the now one-year younger children born in April to June entering school at the 'right' time? Would that just move but not solve the problem?
“Currently, there is no decisive evidence one way or the other. To get this evidence the government would need to fund a controlled study that randomises volunteers to delayed and not delayed school entry. "