Studies in the United States, where children in most places start school a year later than those in Britain, have found that the differences between summer- and autumn-born children disappear by about the age of eight, instead of twelve as in Britain. The findings, which will be presented at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference next month, come hard on the heels of accusations from early-years experts that the Government is forcing children into formal education too soon by introducing new goals for five-year-olds.
Dougal Hutchinson and Caroline Sharp looked at the reading test scores of pupils at the ages of six, eight, ten and twelve. At age six, those born between September and December scored on average six marks more than those born between May and August. By the age of 10 the differences were less but did not disappear until age 12. Secondary school provides a fresh start with new friends, new subjects and new teachers. which mean both pupils' and teachers' expectations change.
Ms Sharp says that summer-born children may lag behind because they are the youngest in the class. "Even if there is only one intake date in the year, so that summer-born children have the same schooling as the rest of the class, their self-esteem may be affected by being younger and seeming less able than their peers."
The problem, she argues, is that if summer-borns are labelled as less able, the label sticks. They do poorly because they are less confident and teachers have fewer expectations of them. In this country, their difficulties are more acute because they start school earlier, when the differences between them and their older peers are likely to be larger.
Ministers' encouragement of setting by ability in primary schools, and the fact that no allowance is made for age in national tests at five or seven, may intensify the problem.
In the US, Ms Sharp says, many parents hold their summer-born children back for a year so that they will not be the youngest in the class. "Children in this country start school at an early age when developmental differences are quite large. Attitudes can be formed about their performance that remain with them throughout the school."
Teachers, she says, need to be aware of the research findings and to reassure both children and their parents that they will catch up. The good news is that great writers such as W B Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Martin Amis were all summer babies. For sports enthusiasts, one study has found that those born between September and December were much more likely to play professional football.Reuse content