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Debate: The last word – Season-of-birth effect

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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

As I discussed last month, research shows that summer-born children are at a disadvantage. So how can we give them equal opportunities?

John Coe

The season-of-birth effect – it’s important. The younger you are in the school year, the less chance you have of success. At the extremes, August-born children are twice as likely to be poor readers than autumn-born children. And this is not a phenomenon which is confined to the early years. We might expect it to disappear as children get older, but not so; it persists right through to sixth form and beyond.

The answer lies not in the child but in us and how we teach

Results speak for themselves

Now don’t scream at me that you have a summer-born child who is top of the class; we mustn’t generalise from the particular. It’s when you study hundreds of children and their attainments that the season-of-birth effect is revealed quite conclusively.

Have your baby in the autumn, Mrs Worthington. Compared with the summer-born children, there is a 30 per cent greater possibility that they will end up among the top ten per cent of children gaining the best GCSE results.

The heart of the matter

So, what can we do about it? First, we have to get to the heart of the matter. It’s not that the youngest have less time in the admission class – allowing for that, the effect is still there. It’s nothing to do with when the child was conceived or how they were nurtured, researchers have discounted all that. No, the answer lies not in the child but in us and how we teach. All over the world (and the phenomenon is worldwide), children are put into classes with an age spread of up to a year and, hard-pressed as we are, teachers don’t discriminate enough in favour of the younger ones. This is worsened when there is pressure for all children to reach a given level of attainment at the end of a school year.

We need to keep thinking about age differences among the children. And, most importantly, we must minimise the selectivity which is present in too many schools. Selection for streams and sets invariably finds the younger children over represented in a less-able group. Streaming has gone from most primaries, thank goodness, but setting exists in larger schools as a result of SATs demands. However, coaching for tests has little to do with education. We should remember the research findings which show that setting, like streaming, does not improve attainments over the longer term. There are effects on the children though. Those who are taught with others deemed less able become more like the norm of the group and instead of their horizons being widened, they are closed down. This is the way that differences in attainment due to age, perfectly natural and acceptable as children begin school, become hard-wired by school organisation and so the season-of-birth effect remains.

Flexibility is key

It is vital that we organise our schools as flexibly as possible. Perhaps this is a clue to the undoubted success of small schools. In the mixed-age class, the focus is on the child, not the year, and this is helpful to all, not least the summer born.

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