A is for August: should summer-born children get their grades boosted?

My Leo ears pricked up recently when I heard about a new report that says summer-born children should have their exam results boosted to compensate for being almost a year younger than some of their peers.

Born on a long hot August night in 1970, I started school a matter of days after my fourth birthday. Some of my classmates were five or nearly five.
Never once did the idea emerge that I might be academically disadvantaged by the fact that I had been alive almost twelve months less than these older children. I got on; I passed tests. In fact, the only disadvantage that ever occurred to me about being a summer-born was that all my school friends were on holiday when it came round to my sunny August birthday party.

So the new study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies made me stop and think. It says pupils born in England in August are less likely to get good GCSEs or go to university than those born in September - and are even more likely to drop out of school. What's more, double the amount of August children are assessed as having mild special educational needs at the age of 11 than their September counterparts.

The report authors have used a range of official data including the Department of Education's National Pupil Database to come to their conclusion that pass marks should rise for older children. A recent BBC article explains their findings and proposals in more detail including the way the new system would be based on average point scores (that’s data speak for the levels of progress children are expected to make during their school life). It also sets out arguments against a system that one respected head teacher calls “extremely complicated” and warns there would be disputes as “no-one would understand it.”

For me, the question of whether the authors of this study have come up with a workable solution to this age-old problem is largely irrelevant. Changes to the way exam results are marked would take many months if not many years to trial and introduce. Nothing is going to happen without major consultation.

What is important, however, is the fact that this is now a topic for debate. Parents are becoming aware that their summer-born children may be disadvantaged in the current school system.

This has been on my radar for a while for two main reasons:

1. A few years ago a wonderful neighbour of mine held her August born daughter, Isabella, back from starting primary school for a year. It wasn’t easy. In fact, her battle with the Local Authority was enough to make any parents’ toes curl. But according to my neighbour, four year old Izzy was just not ready... emotionally or academically. Izzy was shy, quiet and uncertain. She had no notion of shapes of letters or numbers. The family won their battle and have never looked back. When Izzy arrived for her first day at school – she was just five – she was talkative and quite confident and could easily scribble her name. (I love this story but it also bothers me that the mother (my friend and neighbour) is Cambridge-educated, highly articulate and was unswerving in her belief that she was doing the right thing for her child. How on earth would a less confident parent – perhaps an August born parent who hadn’t done so well at school – have fared facing the local council door slammers?)

2. One of my favourite books of recent years is The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. On his blog, Gladwell describes the meaning of the title. “An outlier is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.” He goes on to describe how “outliers” become the stars of his literary show. “In this book I'm interested in people who are outliers - men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.” Importantly for this summer-born debate, Gladwell also looks at patterns or common reasons for extraordinary achievement. One chapter is dedicated to exploring the link between the success of top American sportsmen and women and the time of year they were born. The book is based on US statistics and in the US the academic year starts in January. When, according to Gladwell, were the majority of top American athletes born? January. These children are older, potentially stronger and more experienced and these traits signal early success. (Take note: another crucial Gladwell X-Factor rears its head here; practice, practice, practice. Summer-borns have, put simply, had less practice at being alive.) Success equals confidence and confidence equals a greater willingness to practice and improve further. And so the cycle continues until the children who start the year with an 11-month advantage over some of their peers are signed up for major league teams.

Ultimately, parents cannot control what month their child is conceived – although the timing of the birth can be quite accurately pinpointed nine months later! But we can increase our awareness of whether our child's birth month is affecting their progress at school. It may have a positive affect – we may have a Gladwellesque star in our midst – or we may be wondering how on earth our just-four-year-old will cope when they start Reception class in September.

Either way, this August born Leo loves sunshine and heat and is very glad this debate is hotting up.