Premature babies more likely to underperform at school, study finds

Former Children’s Commissioner says those born pre-term should have their school entry date determined by their due date, not their actual date of birth
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Babies born prematurely should have their school entry date determined by their due date, not their actual date of birth, the former Children’s Commissioner has said, after a study found pre-term babies were more likely to go on to underperform at school.

Researchers from the University of Bristol found that premature babies were at an educational disadvantage compared to children born at full term – and observed that the problem was especially prevalent in August babies who went on to attend school a year earlier because of premature birth.

Sir Albert Aynsley Green, professor emeritus of child health at University College London and one of the UK’s leading experts on children’s services, said that the data should prompt a “change in policy” on school entry ages.

”The increase in survival rates for premature babies is a great medical success,” he said. “However, the consequence of this for too many infants is that their educational needs are not being addressed adequately, including the age at which they start formal school education. Education experts must look at these data and argue for a change in policy so that the school entry age for children born prematurely is based on their expected due date rather than their premature date of birth.”

Previous studies have suggested that the youngest children in a school year group are at an academic disadvantage.

One in three children born prematurely (before 37 weeks) have lower Key Stage 1 test results than those born at full term (37-42 weeks) and more than a third have special educational needs, according to the Bristol study, which looked at almost 12,000 participants.

Lead researcher Dr David Odd, of Bristol’s School of Clinical Sciences, said: “Some of the social and educational difficulties these children face may be avoidable by recognising the impact that their date of birth has on when they start school.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have changed the Schools Admissions Code to make it easier for parents to defer their child’s entry or request they attend part time until they reach their fifth birthday.