Why birthday penalty mustn't spoil the big day for summer-borns
When Sir Jim Rose announced last year that starting school in September should become the norm for all four-year-olds, the news was met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from headteachers. Although the official school starting age remains the start of the term after a child's fifth birthday, no boy or girl is believed to begin school this late.
Schools have long offered to take in "rising fives", which meant children starting in the term they turned five. This enabled the first school year - reception - to run from September to June, with all children in school by April.
Gradually, an increasing number of schools dropped the April intake. January soon followed. Now in 94 out of 150 local authorities all children enter reception in September.
The early years foundation stage (EYFS), a curriculum that sets out what parents can expect for their under-fives irrespective of setting - school, nursery or childminder - was introduced in September 2008.
This has gone some way towards shifting the perception that reception is the first year of school towards a view that it is instead the final year of pre-school. But the reality is that many reception classes are like real school: many children have to wear uniform and they attend all day.
At a recent debate at Westminster on starting school, speakers acknowledged that the policy landscape has undergone a major shift. Whether or not four-year-olds should be in school at all is no longer under discussion; instead, the issue is how schools should handle the new reality.
The changes implemented under the foundation stage are not necessarily enough. Bernadette Duffy, head of the Thomas Coram Centre in London and chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, says: "If I were starting with a clean sheet, I would say children should start school in the year they become six."
Ideally, she adds, all children should have two years of high-quality early-years education before this, during which the staffing ratio would be one well-qualified adult to 10 children.
"Rather than focusing on school starting age, we should focus on what young children need wherever they are," she said. "The EYFS gives us a really good framework; it is about the importance of a child as a unique individual. But I have a problem with it.
"At the moment, reception classes are exempt from the ratio and some of the requirements (of adults to children) of the EYFS. And they can't have it both ways. If four-year-old children are coming into school at the beginning of the year, they are entitled to the same ratio, the same quality of education as their peers (in other settings)."
The problem of how schools should evolve to deal with the new reality that all rising fives now start in September have been considered by both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Foundation for Educational Research.
Both organisations concluded that the most effective way to solve the "birthdate penalty" for summer-born children would be to introduce age-standardised tests.
These would make it explicit, for example, that an August-born child who reaches the level expected of their September-born classmate is not average, but is, in fact, working a year ahead of expectations.
It would prevent bright, but young children being assessed as working below expectations, a situation that often leads to a loss of confidence that is then exacerbated when they are given less challenging work.
Research shows that the effect of birthdate fades over time, and it would remain possible to assess against absolute, rather than relative, scores - ie to evaluate children against the curriculum rather than one other.
But assessment was outside Sir Jim's remit. He acknowledged that the issue of summer-borns is "complex and no single policy response provides all the answers" and added that high-quality provision was known to help children both academically and socially. The debate should shift on to how to secure the best provision in reception, he said.
There is also the question of what happens as children get older. Sir Jim was asked to look for ways of easing the transition from reception to Year 1.
His main recommendation was that the key stage 1 curriculum should be organised by six areas of learning. Although these are not identical to the six areas of learning and development in the foundation stage, they are aligned with them.
In addition, he called for KS1 teachers to be involved in moderating the foundation-stage profile - an assessment of each child at the end of the academic year in which they turn five - so they gain a greater understanding of how to link their lessons with what pupils have done in reception.
But some argue that Year 1 teachers will be hampered in this because of the need to prepare pupils for tests at the end of Year 2.
Diane Christopher, head of Sandown CofE Primary on the Isle of Wight and a member of the executive committee of National Primary Headteachers, argues that part of the debate over summer-born children is driven by the testing regime which expects them to have reached a certain level by the time they are seven, even though they might not be developmentally ready.
She believes that not only should the foundation stage cover nursery, reception and Year 1, but that KS1 tests should be scrapped.
In the initial consultation on the primary curriculum in spring 2008, the single most popular idea was for elements of reception practice to be extended into Year 1. An overwhelming 93 per cent of respondents wanted this to happen.
The issue of whether four-year-olds need more time in reception may be done and dusted, but the debate about how they should be taught has just begun.
The consultation on the proposed changes to the primary curriculum continues: www.qca.org.ukcurriculumconsultation
DOWNWARD DRIFT ACROSS EUROPE
There is a trend across continental Europe towards children entering education at a younger age. Denmark and Romania have recently lowered their starting ages from seven to six.
In Latvia and Poland, which have a starting age of seven, pre-school is compulsory at six. Some countries where the starting age was already six have made pre-school attendance compulsory from four or five.
In several continental countries, as in England, most children enter school below the compulsory school age.
Starting age: Country
4: Northern Ireland
5: England, Malta, Netherlands, Scotland, Wales.
6: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey.
7: Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden.