The academic disadvantage of being born in the summer

What's the evidence and what can be done about it?

Go to the profile of Annie Brookman-Byrne
Jan 15, 2018
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A recent Tes article reported UK government statistics that show summer-born pupils less likely to reach a good level of development by the end of their first year at school (Reception), compared to autumn-born pupils. Pupils born in the summer were less likely to reach the benchmarks set by the government in skills including counting and reading.

These new figures are consistent with prior research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2007 and 2013 that looked at the “August birth penalty” in children aged 5 to 18. When children born in August (making them the youngest in the year) were compared to those born in September (the oldest in the year), there were a number of differences in academic-related outcomes. Concerningly, their research found that although the “penalty” decreased as pupils got older, it was still apparent at the time pupils left school. The August-born pupils were less likely to receive 5 GCSEs at grade C or above (examined at age 16), they were slightly less likely to obtain a university degree, and they had less confidence in their academic ability.

A number of possible reasons for these differences have been considered. One account holds that the differences are climate-related: whereby August-born pupils contract more winter infections during early development. However this does not hold as age-related outcome differences are seen in both the north and south hemispheres. Other possibilities implicate the age at which children start school and the amount of time spent there, since August-born pupils are more likely to start later in the year. Nevertheless, neither of these possibilities seem to fit the data: the 2013 IFS report states that, when examined, these factors did not explain much of the difference in test scores.

The best explanation then, is probably also the simplest: August-born pupils are 11 months younger than September-born pupils when they take tests and it is the pupils’ age at the time of the test that matters the most. Interestingly, cognitive tests that do take age into account show no difference according to when in the year children are born. This is further evidence that age itself is the driving factor, rather than anything relating to external factors like the environment or amount of time in school.

The evidence for this effect is pretty robust. So what should be done about it? The recent Tes article reported calls from parents and the UK government to allow summer-born children to be kept back a year. However, deferring school entry for some children is likely to exacerbate the problems already seen. Not all parents will choose to keep their child out of school for another year, which means that the possible difference between the oldest and youngest child in a year group increases even more. It is also likely that those who do choose to keep their children at home for an extra year are those who can afford to do so, which means that this policy would help those from a more advantaged background, who don’t need to be in work or can afford childcare. The flip-side of this is that the disadvantage suffered by some families with low incomes may become more firmly entrenched.

Adjusting test scores according to age, in a similar manner to cognitive tests, looks like a fairer, and easily implementable approach. This would require no changes to when or how tests are given in school, or to when pupils start school. The IFS recommended this approach, explaining that age-adjusted scores could be used to group pupils by ability, to calculate league tables, and to determine whether or not a pupil can continue with their desired education path. The IFS also recommended that pupils take non-adjusted scores to future employers, to allay any concerns that pupils have not reached a particular level of performance. Presumably the concern is that employers will worry that a younger applicant is not as capable as an older applicant, and the unadjusted scores will hopefully show that the younger applicant nonetheless reached an acceptable level of achievement. There remains the concern that younger pupils would still have a lower score to show employers due to their age, but at least their acceptance on to educational courses should have been made in a more fair way. 

Pupils born in the summer are less likely to reach the government benchmarks, which is a sure sign that the government benchmarks need altering according to age. Despite clear recommendations from the IFS advocating in favour there is as yet no plan to introduce the approach. It is unclear why this recommendation is not implemented. The UK government website simply suggests that parents are best placed to make decisions about their child’s school starting age. While holding some of the youngest pupils back a year is likely to help those children, it won’t remove the effect of age at testing and may further disadvantage some children. In the future, it is hoped that age can be taken into account, to remove the impact that the luck of a child’s birth date has and to give all pupils the fairest grades.

Go to the profile of Annie Brookman-Byrne

Annie Brookman-Byrne

PhD student, Birkbeck, University of London

I use a behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning in adolescence.

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