It’s something of a mystery why the academic year starts in September or October. How far it goes back is unclear, too – certainly when novels of the 18th and 19th century talk about characters going to Oxford or Cambridge, there doesn’t seem to be any great tidal swell of new arrivals in October. People seem to start at the beginning of a new term, whenever that may be, without any worry about coming in halfway through the year.
There is a sort of internet belief that school years are structured as they are because children needed to help with the arable harvest. In the UK, arable crops are mainly harvested in July, August and early September.
I don’t know how this is supposed to help with Kentish farmers’ apple harvests or lambing time in Derbyshire. But in any case, whatever the reason for it, schools and universities start in early autumn after a long summer break, and pupils and students are jolly well expected to start with them.
It’s been known for quite a long time that the beginning of the school year in September offers favours or disadvantages to individual students. The trouble is that people’s lives don’t begin as tidily as the school year. They are born here and there, at any time of the year.
At the beginning of life, development is rapid, and a year between the ages of four and five will transform the potential for learning and grasping, for solving problems and for concentration. If a child is born in late August, they will go to school young; five days later, a September child will go to school with much more greatly advanced developmental skills. They will have different experiences of school, and perhaps different outcomes which do not depend on their innate abilities.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell has raised an interesting parallel case, with Canadian ice hockey teams. The Canadian ice hockey season begins on 1 January, and the eligibility for the under-11, under-12 teams and so on begins on the same date.
The consequence is that small boys born in December are competing with bigger boys born in January, and losing out on places. Overwhelmingly, professional Canadian ice hockey players were born in January and February. They just had more chance from the outset.
Now, nobody cares much about Canadian ice hockey players, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has carried out a useful study of school pupils which demonstrates that much the same effect holds true for academic attainment.
If you are born between September and November, you are 25 per cent more likely to go to Oxford or Cambridge than a child born in August. GCSE attainment is lower for June-to-August babies by a factor of 6.4 per cent, compared with autumn births.
Of course, this is only one factor among many, and it is easy to find exceptions, or “outliers”, in Gladwell’s terms. Actually, I’ve got one close to home – my husband was born in late August, and his immediate elder sister 11 months earlier in early September.
They were in the same class at school, and their achievement ought to have been affected by this factor. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have made any difference in this individual case, like many others. Nevertheless, it does inflect achievement, and clearly restricts potential.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies recommends “age-adjusted national achievement test scores”. The pass rates for exams would be set lower for those born in August, and raised for those born in September. Nothing easier, they say.
Actually, what these findings ought to indicate is how much education – and the testing of achievement – has been run by institutions for the benefit of institutions, as a competition and not a means to develop individuals. If there are losers, all the better; if there are people who fail exams, that makes the success of those who pass all the more impressive.
In this mindset, factors that contribute to individuals’ failure are quite useful to the system. Perhaps we ought to think about education, instead, as a means to help as many people as possible reach a good level of attainment.
Some people dismiss this as an “all must have prizes” mentality. I don’t agree. There will still be prizes for the extraordinary achievement. But “all should pass exams” is not so very far from the principle that everyone should learn to read in a working educational system.
What is needed is not a mad tinkering with exam standards, relating them to birthdays. You can foresee the conversations in sixth-form common rooms. “I got 12 As at GCSE.” “Yeah, but they was only like August As, you loser, like anyone could fail them.” What is needed is the thought that education isn’t something that starts at 9am on the fifth 1 September after birth and finishes in June, 11 years later, with a three-hour paper. Fewer finishing lines: more ability to follow a course of study at a number of starting points and a number of ways to sign off from school.
The structured system of one starting point and one finishing point is very useful to institutions, which run efficiently on this basis, but not always very useful to people.
There aren’t many children at school now who need to get the wheat in during the long summer holiday. Let them start when it suits them between the ages of five and six, at any time of year, and finish when they have actually attained what they ought to attain.
The first of September? Well, it’s a good time to decide to start going to the gym, you may have discovered.