Beat the age gap blues

Summer-borns can suffer educationally
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The Independent Online
Generally speaking, summer birthdays are more fun. You get to eat strawberries and ice-cream, paddle in a pool in the back garden or go on a day trip to the seaside.

But parents whose children are born in the summer might see things differently. Research, borne out by classroom experience, indicates that children born in the sunshine months can be at an educational disadvantage.

Ann Dyson, a primary school teacher from Hampshire, understands the dread summer birthdays can strike into a parent's heart: "Children with birthdays in late summer can be almost a whole year behind peers born in winter, and it stands to reason that this affects their educational ability," she says. "The problem is that the national curriculum tests do not make allowances for age differences."

Dyson says some of them suffer from what is, in effect, age discrimination: "There is a real difference in maturity between the younger and the older children in a year, which in turn affects their ability to learn. "Some of my children were six when they sat tests in April, which puts them at a clear disadvantage to those who were seven. In class you adapt your material according to ability but the questions in the tests are the same for everyone."

Dyson's experience is reflected in many long-term studies. The summer syndrome was first identified in the Sixties, when it became apparent that proportionally more autumn-born children were gaining places at grammar school.

The issue was less relevant in the Seventies, with the rise of mixed- ability comprehensives, but the problem came up again when national curriculum assessments for children aged seven, 11 and 14 were introduced in the early Nineties.

Dougal Hutchison, the chief statistician with the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), who has been studying the effect of age on attainment for five years, has found that a child's position in the age-group is a key factor in learning capacity as older children are more developmentally mature.

"Problems come when teachers have lower expectations of young children in the year group, and this leads the summer-borns to have lower expectations," he says.

This appears to be confirmed by NFER studies which show that children sitting their first assessment tests generally have poorer results if they are only six instead of the prescribed seven, and can still be behind up to GCSE and beyond: "Research shows that a poorer performance at GCSE by summer-born children is reflected in the proportions of students entering A-levels," says Hutchison. "Of course, not every summer child will fail, but a spiral of low expectations and low achievement can occur unless parents and schools are aware of their needs."

But Peter Tymms, a reader in education at Durham University, disagrees with the NFER conclusions: "I have been struck by the enormous progress that children make during their first year at primary school, regardless of the age at which they come in," Tymms says. "We don't have solid evidence for what is the best way forward."

Other academics disagree with this. David Jesson, a senior lecturer in education at Sheffield University, examined the results of 100,000 pupils in 800 schools. Although sceptical at first, he now believes that birthdays are one of the four factors affecting performance, along with social class, gender and ability.

Some parents are arguing that they should at the very least be allowed the option of keeping their summer-born offspring back a year. They look to the US system, where six is the starting school age and parents routinely request that children be put into the year below.

Fi Hunt, whose son Pascal turned 11 yesterday, would have liked the option. "When Pascal first went to primary school he had barely turned four and there were children in his class almost a year older," she says. "There is definitely a case for allowing late summer-born children to go into the year below.

"In Pascal's case it was more of a problem on the social front. Younger children need the social skills an extra year in nursery school would provide. I would have kept my son there for another year - but I was never given the choice."

I struggle a bit more than everyone else

Annie Fothergill is about to go into year 11 of St Alban's Girls School but she is still only 14. She doesn't have her 15th birthday until August 25, and is the youngest in the year.

"IT IS an absolute nightmare always being the youngest in the class. All my friends are approaching 16 and I'm still 14. I feel young and everyone treats me as though I'm young.

"Luckily, my teachers make allowances and help me because I do seem to struggle a bit more than everyone else.

"Having more attention when I was younger would have helped my academic work enormously. In primary school problems arose when people expected me to achieve the same as everyone else.

"I was just 10 when I sat my 11-year-old SAT tests and I remember it being difficult to make out what was going on. I obviously wasn't able to completely understand the questions.

"My parents actually had the option of keeping me back a year, which I don't think schools offer now. But they decided against it. In some ways I wish they hadn't decided that, because it would have been better being taught with people my own age."