Let them start school when ready

16th January 2009 at 00:00

We know that children born in the summer months do less well academically than those born earlier in the school year. The "birth penalty" did not stop the likes of Napoleon, Goethe or Jack Straw succeeding, but it is sufficient to dent the performance of many August children. They perform less well on average at 7, 11, 14, GCSE and A-level than older peers in their year. By the time they get to university they are outnumbered by those born in September by 20 per cent.

Jim Rose was asked by the Government to see what could be done. Wisely avoiding the option of outlawing conception in the autumn, he recommends early formal learning. Now it seems his advice - albeit hedged with caveats - for children to start compulsory schooling in the September after their fourth birthday has provoked a backlash, not least among members of his own early education advisory group. So who is right, Sir Jim or his critics?

There is evidence that a single entry point in September does even out test scores for young children. It is also true that delaying entry until later in the year can lead to some being permanently stigmatised as laggards. To defer entry for summer-borns to the following year, as happens elsewhere, is an option but not a cost-free one: pre-school provision has to be increased, the school estate decreased.

And Sir Jim's solution to a politically pesky problem has the outstanding benefit of sanctioning the status quo - 70 per cent of English authorities already practise what he preaches. Radical alternatives could be very inconvenient.

Unfortunately, Sir Jim's suggested cure causes as many headaches as it alleviates. A September start improves test scores, but not by much. It's all too easy for teachers to confuse low ability with immaturity, as Sir Jim acknowledges, and it isn't entirely proven that later underperformance owes more to a lack of schooling than a lack of age. Indeed, many researchers believe early exposure to formal lessons inhibits learning and causes undue anxiety for underdeveloped youngsters. That could cause greater damage than any penalty imposed by an accident of birth.

There is no single solution to this problem. But it would be far better, despite the cost and inconvenience, to allow parents to delay or defer the entry date if they do not believe their child is ready for school.

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