Born in summertime, when the living is easy. But what about the learning?

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Sir Jim Rose wanted all pupils to start in September to make it fairer for those born after Easter. Now he faces an embarrassing U-turn. Helen Ward explores a vexed issue

Like all the best problems, the "summer born" conundrum is easy to explain but difficult to solve.

This is why many in the early years community were so startled when Sir Jim Rose pronounced his solution after just six months of considering the issue.

The problem, as set out by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, at the beginning of last year in his remit to Sir Jim, is that children born in August do worse at school because they are up to a year younger when they sit their key stage tests.

So should parents, asked Mr Balls, have choice and flexibility over when their children start primary school?

The short answer from Sir Jim when his interim report was published in December was No. But it is becoming clear he is facing a rebellion from within the Government's early education advisory group. A U-turn seems inevitable.

The debate is almost as old as compulsory primary education, which is one reason why Sir Jim's recommendation - that all children should start school in September - received so much publicity. He said that "entry into reception class in the September immediately following a child's fourth birthday should become the norm", with parents allowed to choose part-time attendance and provided with information about the "optimum conditions and benefits" of starting school in September.

But this recommendation simply echoes what happens already for the majority of four-year-olds.

Where once "rising fives" would begin school in the term when they turned five, now the vast majority of authorities have a single entry point in September. And voluntary-aided schools, which determine their own admissions, largely fall in line with their authority. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that part-time attendance is a fairly common technique for settling pupils in.

Sir Jim based his recommendations partly on a study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2007, which revealed that the August "birth penalty" effect was significant among younger children. Even though it declined over time, it was still evident when pupils were 16.

The institute's study tried to unpick how much of this penalty was caused by the children being younger when they took exams, and how much was because they spent less time in school. It concluded that having a single start date in September could mean better test scores for the youngest children because they would be in school longer.

And the institute highlighted two important caveats that Sir Jim touched upon but chose to ignore:

- The difference in test scores for pupils with two extra terms in school was small and only significant for boys up to the age of 7 and girls up to 14.

- A September start for all is a "minor change", unlikely to eliminate the birth penalty successfully.

The institute's 2007 report also considered only English and maths results - not the social and psychological effects of starting school at four. Its main recommendation was to alter test results to reflect birth date, or to test pupils only when they were ready, or to expand nursery provision.

At present, all children have free nursery provision from the term after their third birthday, which means that - under a single point of entry system - the youngest would have less time in nursery before starting reception.

Sir Jim also based his recommendation on an unpublished study from the National Strategies programme, which seems to show that children who are in school for longer are more likely to know the alphabet and be able to link letters to sounds.

But David Whitebread, senior lecturer in the psychology of education at the University of Cambridge, is unimpressed by Sir Jim's conclusion that spending longer in school means summer-born children do better in tests.

"Of course, in the short term, they will do better," he said. "It would be very surprising if they didn't. But that doesn't mean it is the right thing to be doing. You could teach four-year-olds the flags of the world, and they would do better at it than if they were not taught them at all. But it wouldn't make any sense to do so.

"It is a big mistake to think that if children learn earlier they get further. They won't. Children learning to jump through hoops are not really learning, not understanding, and a significant proportion will be put off because they are being asked to do something they find difficult, that they don't want to do and that stresses them out and makes them upset. That is not the way to encourage someone to become an enthusiastic learner with a positive attitude to themselves as a school child.

"There is strong evidence that the length of time in a play-based, high- quality nursery class makes more difference, not the length of time in reception. We should be providing six terms of nursery, as set out in the EYFS (early years foundation stage)," he added. "If it's done properly and to a high standard, then every child gets to a really good standard and they can go into reception class as confident learners."


Finn Ramsay was four last summer. He knows that means he is one of the youngest in his class at Sutton Benger CofE Primary in Wiltshire. But his mum, Sue Learner, is not sure how much of a consolation that is to him when he struggles to write his name.

"I asked the council if he could go into reception in 2009," said Ms Learner, "but they said by five he has to be in Year 1, so he would miss reception.

"He has gone part-time. There is just a fantastic difference between kids who turned five in September and Finn.

"It's a good school and they have helped him, but he still can't hold a pen properly, so he can just about write his name.

"And doing phonics with him he's just confused. I was doing T with him and he just said F, F."

Attending part-time has helped, but has not solved the basic problem: that Finn sees his classmates are doing things that he can't do.

"His younger brother will try and try, but Finn is not like that," says his mother. "He says, `I can't do it, so I won't do it.'

"My main worry is his self-esteem, not his ability. He just thinks he can't do it and I think that thought could perpetuate itself throughout his school life.

"I want him to see school as somewhere exciting and fun. I don't want him to feel he can't do things at the age of four."

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