Summer-born children starting school

25th May, 2018

The number of requests for delayed school entry increased significantly between 2015 and 2017 according to a survey of Local Authorities (LA’s) but the rate of parental requests varied between LA’s, usually in accord with their policies regarding the amount of professional evidence required to support the request and of the requests made 75% were agreed. I have been asked to talk about this subject on a number of occasions, including in October 2009 for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ and have drawn upon my work with children, their families and schools where the question of whether or not it is in the best interests of the child to be held back a year or to stay with their chronological age group. The School Admissions Code requires school admission authorities to provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday, a child does not reach compulsory school age until the prescribed day following their fifth birthday or on their fifth birthday if it falls on a prescribed day. The prescribed days are 31 December, 31 March and 31 August.

The key areas that need to be established when parents of a summer-born child require the input of a professional like myself include:

  • The child’s level of development relative to the norms for children of his/her age
  • The degree to which the child is ‘school-ready”, i.e. able to cope with the demands and challenges of school
  • What arrangements and support are necessary for the child to be able to access the learning and development opportunities in a school context

The law

The Department for Education statutory guidance for admission authorities, governing bodies, local authorities, schools adjudicators and admission appeals panels, issued in December 2014, states that the admission authority is required to:

  • Make a decision on the year group a *summer-born 5-year-old should be admitted to on the basis of the circumstances of the case and in the best interests of the child.
  • Parents also have the right to send their child to school on a part-time basis before they reach the compulsory school age.

However, in 2015 the then Education Minister Nick Gibbs wrote that government had decided to amend the school admissions code further to ensure admission of summer-born children to reception class at the age of five if it is in line with their parents’ wishes, and to ensure that those children could remain with that cohort as they progressed through primary and secondary school. This proposal has been subject to public consultation and then requires Parliamentary approval in order to introduce further changes that will allow children to start school when they are ready. It is currently at the House of Lords stage.

The question of whether or not the circumstances of the case and the best interests of the child warrant delayed school entry is what I have had to assess and this takes account of the parent’s views, the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history, the views of any involved medical and/or educational professionals and whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group.

What the research has to say

The brief answer is rather a lot and therefore I list what I think is particularly pertinent here:

  • Summer-borns have a higher incidence of assessed additional needs such as Specific learning Difficulties and attendance of Special Educational provision than those not classified as such, i.e. born between 1st of September and 31st of March
  • Summer-borns have lower school attainment levels than those not classified as such. This discrepancy reduces over time and is most evident on starting school
  • Summer-borns are more likely to be referred to mental health services
  • Teacher’s expectations of the academic potential and ability of summer-borns was less than for those not classified as such
  • The strategies and approaches that appear to have most effect in addressing the needs of summer-borns are high levels of teacher awareness, age-standardised tests and individualised, appropriate curriculum.

My view at this time

Firstly, I have to come clean and admit something: I am as summer-born as it is possible to be, i.e. my birthday is 31st of August. Secondly, as a registered practitioner psychologist who has worked with many thousands of unique children and young people I am more aware than most of the need to be constructively critical of large-scale research studies and to not be seduced by the statistical ‘truths’ they claim and assume that a subject as complex and far-ranging as the development and learning of all children can be reduced to totalising generalisations. The fact is that children learn and develop as a result of both their own innate and unique characteristics in interaction with their particular learning and living contexts so it follows that the opportunities and challenges with which they are presented are important. One challenge is undoubtedly being the youngest in a group of children who are likely to have had more pre-school experience, more social and language experiences and in some cases to have developed early literacy and numeracy skills. However, this does not always apply because children, their parents and their social and material resources all vary. Whilst I recognise the findings of much of the research I also see the sense of that final point, i.e. the strategies and approaches that appear to have most effect in addressing the needs of summer-borns are high levels of teacher awareness, age-standardised tests and individualised, appropriate curriculum. The resource-finite nature of our education system is not perfect but the closer it gets to being aware of and addressing the needs of individual children the better and the debate over summer-borns and their ideal school starting age can be thanked for contributing to this.

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