Education: August's child is really up against it: Fran Abrams looks at evidence that suggests children born in summer suffer serious educational disadvantages

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The Independent Online
Victoria Stanley narrowly failed her 11-plus, but if her birthday had been just two weeks later she would probably have passed. If she had been born in September, instead of August, she would have had an extra year at school before taking the exam. Victoria lives in Kent, which still has selective schooling.

Her mother, Judi, believes she was labelled the 'baby' of the class by teachers who did not want to overstretch her at too early an age, and that she responded to their low expectations.

'The general attitude was that she had an August birthday so we mustn't expect too much of her because she was one of the babies. We thought psychologically that wasn't a good idea. If you hear people talking like that, you must think you are not going to do so well,' she says.

Last year, at 13, Victoria was recommended for a move to grammar school and has had no trouble in keeping up. Others are not so lucky. Research over 30 years shows that summer children are more likely to fail exams, are less likely to go to university and are even more likely to have poor attendance records at school.

This syndrome was first identified in the Sixties, when it became apparent that, like Victoria, summer babies were finding it more difficult than their autumn-born classmates to get into grammar school. Later, Essex University found that 44 per cent of children with special needs were born between May and August, and Swansea University revealed a link between birth date and poor attendance.

After the majority of secondary schools went comprehensive in the Seventies, the issue dropped from view, but now, with the advent of national curriculum testing, it is again becoming more pressing. New research suggests that schools which have above average numbers of summer-born pupils may find this affects their position in the Government's test and exam league tables.

Caroline Sharp, a senior research officer with the National Foundation for Educational Research, has just completed an analysis of the results of 4,000 seven-year-olds who took the tests in 1991. She found that those born in the autumn achieved consistently higher scores in English, maths and science than those born in the summer. Although league tables of seven-year- olds' results are not now published, other research suggests that the effect follows children through school and will appear in all national curriculum league tables.

Ms Sharp argues that while not every August child will fail, a spiral of low expectations and low achievement can occur unless parents and schools are aware of their needs. In many primary schools, it is usually the older children in the class who are given special responsibilities, reinforcing the younger ones' feelings of inferiority.

There is no easy solution to the problems of summer-born children. If they start school at Easter, as they do in many areas, they miss out on two terms of education and arrive to find that everyone else has already settled in. If they start in September, when they are only just four, they may struggle because the school environment may be too formal and too impersonal for them.

Ms Sharp said: 'I don't want to label people, but there is almost a syndrome building up. It isn't every child, but the effects are statistically significant. Parents and teachers ought to be aware of it, to take it into account and to try to do something to equalise things.'

She believes teachers should look for ways of helping their youngest pupils to succeed, rather than expecting them to fail. Giving them some of the little jobs which would usually go to the September-born babies might actually help to reverse the trend.

A September start aged just four may help - extra time in school has been shown to have a positive effect, but only if the environment is geared to nursery-age rather than school-age children.

Parents of secondary school pupils, in particular, may find it useful to remind their teachers from time to time of their birth dates, as such factors are easy to forget about at this stage.

Although the pattern is usually formed at primary school, there is no doubt that it continues throughout a pupil's school life. Research carried out in the mid-Eighties revealed that children born in the summer were less likely than others to gain university places, although once there, their final degree results were not affected.

David Jesson, senior lecturer in education at Sheffield University, looked at how birth date affects GCSE results, as part of a larger research project on factors which might be taken into account to produce fairer, 'value-added' league tables. He examined the results of up to 100,000 pupils in 800 schools, and, although sceptical at first, he was surprised by the strength of his findings. On average, pupils with autumn birthdays gained the equivalent of five Bs and a G at GCSE, while those who had summer birthdays gained five Cs and an E. .

He believes birthdays are one of the big four background factors which affect school performance, along with social class, gender and innate ability.

'When this first emerged it seemed to me to be a quirk, but it even seems to affect the numbers of examinations entered at GCSE. When schools went back and looked at the youngsters in their lower sets, they found an over- representation of those born in the summer,' he says.

The picture is not always bleak, though. Penny Leigh-Brown has two summer-born sons - Daniel was born in July 1976 and Adam in August 1986 - but she does not believe that either of them has suffered as a result.

Daniel and Adam stayed at home until after they were five, but Mrs Leigh-Brown, a teacher, believes they actually benefited from spending more time with her.

'I have two older sons who were born in the winter, so I have been able to make comparisons,' she said. 'My eldest, who was a winter baby, was always one of the oldest in his class and was expected to do well, but he was only average. You make allowances for children who are among the youngest.'

(Photograph omitted)