The evidence that babies born in the summer months, and who start their school careers up to nine months earlier than their peers, lag behind academically is now uncontroversial. Differences in achievement between older and younger pupils in the same school year, though peaking in the earliest years, persist through to the teens. Relative to children born in September, children born in August are reportedly two percentage points less likely to go to university at the age of 18 or 19.
Under pressure from the parents of summer babies, who worry whether their child is ready to start school just weeks after their fourth birthday, the Government now proposes allowing parents of children born between April and August to delay entrance through the school gates by a whole year if desired. Ministers want to give all children the chance to succeed by removing the structural barriers to success at school. What could be fairer?
Yet this idea appears to be based on research findings considered in isolation. Put into practice, it requires schools and their teachers meaningfully to plan lessons for a classroom of new pupils aged anywhere between four years, two weeks and five years, six months; any gap in abilities will be exaggerated, not ameliorated.
Schooling is designed not only to educate but to socialise. The ministers behind this latest initiative appear to have forgotten that children from poorer households on average arrive in school already trailing their wealthier classmates. If those children were kept out of school for an extra year, how much harder it might become to address those inequalities. And as children grow older, the class outliers by age will feel increasingly out of step among their contemporaries (consider simply the biological changes that mark development between the ages of 12 and 14).
Schools were not built as factories to produce university graduates, nor should they be redesigned to meet that function. Even from the first hours inside the gates, schools do more than teach the three Rs, but, once again, that fact risks being ignored in the race to manage statistics.
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