Caroline Sharp and Dougal Hutchison, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, have concluded that equalising the amount of time that children spend in infant school does not necessarily boost the performance of younger pupils. Sharp and Hutchison compared the key stage 1 results of children in 114 schools who had received between six and nine terms of schooling and found that those who had been in school for seven or eight terms often did better than those who had nine.
"There are some clear effects for length of schooling: autumn-borns who have experienced longer at school appear to do better, and summer-borns who have experienced only six terms do least well," they say. "However, neither the spring nor the summer-born group appears to derive an additional benefit from spending the full nine terms at school."
Sharp and Hutchison also collected data on free-school-meal entitlement because it has been suggested that a disproportionate number of the lower-scoring nine-term pupils might be socially disadvantaged. If this were the case the true benefits of a longer stay in the infant school might be partly masked.
The NFER researchers found no evidence to support this argument, however. Instead they speculate that the benefits of spending longer at school are counter-balanced by reception classes' inability to meet all the needs of the younger four-year-old. "Although some LEAs and schools have made strenuous efforts to improve the provision in reception classes, funding to provide teacher training, improve teacher-pupil ratios and enhance buildings and equipment has been slower to materialise," they say.
Their analysis suggests that schools should admit rising-fives on a termly or biannual basis. But they also consider that it is vital to raise awareness of the influence that age has on test results. "The comparatively poorer performance of summer-borns could have important consequences for the child in terms of their self-esteem," the researchers point out. "If children are allocated to sets or streams on the basis of KS1 data these age-related differences could have longer-lasting consequences for children."
How Do Season of Birth and Length of Schooling Affect Children's Attainment at Key Stage 1? A Question Revisited, by Caroline Sharp and Dougal Hutchison, NFER.