The UK school year is set up so that children who are born on the 1st September in one year are educated in the same class as children who may have a birthday on the 31st August in the following year. In other words, there is almost a whole 12 months difference in age. Parents with children who are at the younger age of this spectrum often ask:

  • Does this difference matter?
  • What can I do to minimise the effects?
  • Should I hold them back a year to start school later?

Research conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and published in April 2010 suggests that the child’s date of birth within the academic year does matter and can have an effective on a child’s performance all the way through to age 16 and beyond. The report does however also suggest that there are straightforward and cost-effective ways to remedy this, although these would need a policy change by Central government! In the meantime, our experts have made a few suggestions as to how parents might support their children with summer birthdays to ensure they can hold their own amongst their peers.

Factors which contribute to underperformance of younger children within the year group:

  • They may be too young when they start school so struggle to find their way amongst their peers. Children in England must have started school by the beginning of the term after they turn five and this is considerably earlier than in many other countries. Research indicates that amongst children taking SATS tests at age 7, those with an August birthday are, on average, one third less likely to reach Government target levels. By age 14 however, this statistic has improved and they are only 10 % less likely to reach Government attainment targets.
  • Physical activity and later, sporting involvement in teams can be more challenging for those who are younger in the year group, through smaller physical size or lower level skill development and co-ordination.
  • Exams are taken at fixed dates within the academic year, so the summer birthday children are taking them when they are almost a year younger. For this reason, the Buckinghamshire 11+ test score takes into account the child’s birth month through a formula applied to the score they attained in the verbal reasoning tests. Effectively children born later in the academic year can afford to get slightly more questions wrong to attain the target 121, than children born say in September. GCSE and A level exams all take place at set times within the education timeline and at the current time there is no adjustment for month of birth within the academic year.
  • It is well documented that research indicates that girls perform significantly better than boys, so August born boys it seems have the greatest challenge!

 What can parents do?

  • Class sizes and teaching structure can have an effect on children’s attainment levels. Big classes may lead to less individual focus and lack of flexibility to tailor educational material to cater for age by month differences. In village or smaller primary schools you may find that two year groups are taught together.
  • Ask how the schools you are considering support younger children in the year group.
  • How do the teachers structure the timetable and curriculum, to ensure all are both supported and challenged?
  • Is the curriculum set up to cater for different stages of development?
  • How do they ensure younger children are not dominated by the older ones, who may be more confident, both in the classroom and in the playground?
  • Are there classroom assistants or volunteer parents who can listen to them read for example?
  • How do they cater for size and skill differences in subjects like P.E.?
  • How do they allow for the tendency for boys to underperform when compared with girls?
  • Are classes mixed ability taught or is there some streaming?

Research seems to indicate that starting school later can sometimes have a positive effect on learning outcomes and peer group integration, depending on the child’s confidence and ability to ‘hold their own’. This gap narrows significantly as the children get older, although it can still have a proven effect right up to age 16 and beyond, so should be closely monitored.

Consider whether it might be appropriate for your child to start school later in the school year, perhaps because they are physically small for their age or lack confidence.

Research into local admissions policies of different schools could lead to your identifying different accepted start points within the academic year for reception age children. Some schools have single entry points, where all children start in September of the academic year in which they turn 5, some have double entry points in September (for children born 1st Sept to 29th February) and January (for children born 1st March to 31st August) and others have triple entry points where children start at the beginning of the term in which they turn 5.  Finding what you feel suits the maturity and personality of your child could be an important factor to their making a promising start to their education career.

There is some evidence when comparing children born in April for example who started school in September with those who started in January, that the extra term of school has contributed to slightly higher attainment levels by age 7. This would raise the question of how much input you, the parents, have towards starting the education process pre-school and which environment, home or school suits the individual child’s learning outcomes better. Important things to consider are:

  • Supporting your child’s learning through doing some ‘extra’ work at home
  • As they get older some work with a tutor may help them to catch and keep up.
  • Taking an active interest in what they are learning and talking about it
  • Keeping in regular communication with their teacher to monitor progress
  • Praise, reward and encourage your child to increase confidence
  • Try not to compare their progress with others, particularly with other mums over a coffee. Measure their individual progress.
  • Ensuring they get enough sleep and rest at weekends as younger children will get more tired. This may affect their focus in class and hence progress.

Should I hold them back a year to start school later?

Most Local education Authorities and the majority of independent schools will not permit you to do this unless you have a clearly thought out reason for doing so, or you intend to educate your child at home. It can mean issues arise later with examination entries or with their involvement in sporting teams, as these tend to have participation regulations that link to academic school year and date of birth. It’s much more fun to participate with your peer group than to have to join the year above due to age.

Rather than going down this route, it might be better to consider their starting school at the usual age for their academic year group and then do the following:

Be aware that your child may experience issues with their educational progress or with peer group integration. Talk about it with them and offer guidance, encouragement and support. Be positive.

Advise them on inter-personal skills and how to ‘deal’ with other children.

Praise and encourage them a great deal to emphasise the successes and progress they are making

Monitor their progress carefully and communicate with the school if any worries arise

Spend time at home at the weekends supporting their learning. Give them extra practice, check their homework, listen to them read and read to them, learn spellings and times tables together etc

Don’t panic by comparing them to other children, especially siblings. All children are individuals and progress should be measured against the individual rather than others.

For further reading, the Institute of Fiscal Studies report can be found at the following link.