Is March the New August?

It’s a bummer being an August born child in England. Not only do you have to spend your birthday in the baggage reclaim hall of Gatwick airport but you’re destined to take up smoking at 11, fail all your exams and spend the rest of your life in jail.

Ok, not really but there is mountain of evidence on the detrimental effects of being an August baby. Aged seven 80% of boys born in September reach the expected level in tests, just 48% of boys born in August reach the same level. The effects are long lasting, you are 20% more likely to get into a Russel group university if you’re born in September rather than August. It’s not just academic, according to the Institute of Fiscal studies summer born children have significantly lower confidence in their ability, it concluded ‘August babies face lifelong penalties’.

So when my twin boys, due in mid-October arrived prematurely on 24th August 2005 propelling them into the ‘wrong’ school year, like the good west-London mother that I had become I immediately began to angst over the disadvantages they would suffer because of this accident of birth.

I tried to hold them back a year but, as many parents have found out there is almost no flexibility in the system where the cut off is 31st August, meaning summer babies are in class with children almost a year older, a quarter of their little lives.

My boys were far too young to start school just a few days after their 4th birthday. They were having their school shoes fitted when they were three and they sometimes still fancied an afternoon nap. At least they weren’t given the ludicrous option of skipping reception year completely and then joining year 1, a double disadvantage of being the youngest and missing out on a year’s schooling, as has been offered to some parents.

This week Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced a change in the rules that will allow those with birthdays between April and August to start school at 5 rather than at 4 if parents request it. So you would think I should be punching the air for everyone who comes after me.  Yet I think this proposal has flaws which could turn his stated aim of wanting to ‘extend social justice and opportunity’ on its head.

You see, Mr Gibb told the Commons that ‘We believe that only a small proportion of parents of summer born children will wish them to be admitted to reception at the age of 5.”

Well, if it’s only a small proportion it seems I must know all of them. Every parent I’ve spoken to with a summer child would have held them aged four if they could have. The problem is that’s because all the parents I’ve spoken to are well informed and middle class.

Given the overwhelming evidence that the oldest children in a year have a huge advantage, these parents with the financial means to pay for another year’s childcare will opt to hold their July and August born offspring back (and perhaps eventually June, May and April born as no one wants to be the youngest)  in order to give them a leg up in the class room not to mention on the sports field.

But many summer born children will not get this advantage. If you hold your child back another year you will have to pay childminders costs or one parent will have to stay at home for longer. So for as long as it just remains an ‘option’ rather than the norm and one you have to actively request, it is likely only favoured by the better off.

The Institute of Fiscal studies agrees, saying that some families may be more willing or able to hold back their child, thus creating greater inequities.

Those summer babies whose parents don’t exercise their right to hold their children back a year will now not only be at school with children 12 months older than them but 17 months older! This will surely make it even harder for the very youngest.

Instead why not just move the cut off date to 1st April for everyone? That way even the youngest children would be 4 and half when starting school and no child would ever have to sit their GCSEs at 15 and their A levels at 17 as my boys will.

Whatever we do someone will always have to be the youngest. Many Independent schools already take this into account in their selection tests at and they adjust children’s scores according to their exact age in an attempt to level the playing field. Perhaps that could also be used for state school tests and even public exams.

This is supposed to increase parental choice but is it only increasing the choice of middle class, well informed parents who have looked into the advantages of being the oldest in the class and can afford to pay the childcare or nursery fees for an extra year of pre-school?

I’m all for children starting school later, but let’s not widen the gap in terms of age range and social inequality in the process.