Supporting summer-born children at school

Supporting summer-born children at primary school
Your child’s birthdate could make a big difference to how they manage at primary school. We asked the experts about the potential impact, and how you can help your child thrive.
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If you’ve ever worried about how your child will cope with starting school, you’re not alone. And if you’re the parent of a summer-born child, your concerns may be even greater.

Compared to many other countries – such as Finland, where formal schooling starts at seven – the UK has a relatively young school starting age, with pupils usually joining Reception in the September before their fifth birthday.

This means that while the eldest children in the school year are about to turn five, the youngest have only just turned four. There’s a whole year’s age gap between Reception starters who are born on 1 September and those born on 31 August.

Unsurprisingly, this can make a big difference to how they get on at school.

Summer-born children and school attainment: what the evidence says

Many studies have looked into how having a summer birthday (generally taken to be April to August) affects children’s attainment at school.

‘As the youngest, summer-born children can, on average, be disadvantaged across a range of experiences and outcomes,’ says Dr Tammy Campbell, British Academy post-doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics.

Just 49% of summer-born children achieve ‘a good level of development’ in their Reception year, compared to 71% of autumn-born children, and their academic achievement remains lower throughout compulsory education, reflected in KS1 SATs at the end of Year 2, and KS2 SATs at the end of Year 6.

‘The effect of being summer-born decreases as children get older, but it remains significant,’ says Dr Asma Benhenda, research fellow at University College London Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities.

‘Relative to children born in September, children born in August are less likely to achieve five good GCSEs at grades A*-C [data isn’t yet available for the new 9-1 grading system] and are less likely to go to university.’

Why might summer-born children struggle at school?

Not all summer-born children struggle at school: some are more than ready to start Reception. Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon for them to have more difficulties at school than older pupils, for many reasons.

1. They’re just not ready

The age gap between a four-year-old and a five-year-old can be pronounced, and there may be a big developmental difference.

‘They start school with a fifth of a life less than their autumn-born peers, and the corresponding social skills and maturity,’ says Dr Campbell.

This can affect big things like readiness to read, write and count, and small but still important things such as being able to change for PE and eat their lunch independently.

2. They’re at a disadvantage in tests

‘The education system is not currently set up in a way that recognises the enormous impact of relative age on test results, particularly in the primary years,’ Dr Campbell explains.

For example, results of the new Reception Baseline Assessment are not age-standardised (weighted according to a child’s birthdate, with younger children given compensatory marks), and nor are SATs.

Although the RBA and SATs are predominantly a measure of performance for schools, it can knock a child’s confidence (and yours) if they perform less well than the older children in their year.

3. They may be placed in lower ability groups

There’s strong evidence that summer-born children are more likely to be streamed in lower ability groups – even at primary school – than older children in the year, and as a result be taught at a slower pace or given less challenging work.

‘This can have multiple consequences, including for children’s self-esteem,’ Dr Campbell explains.

4. They’ve missed out on a chunk of early education

Because of the way Early Years funding works (which entitles children to at least 15 hours’ free Early Years education per week from the term after their third birthday), they’re eligible for fewer terms of funded pre-school or school nursery before they start Reception.

These settings can help children develop important skills for starting school and begin to lay the foundations for learning in Reception – such as basic phonics and numeracy.

As a result, summer-born children who start pre-school or school nursery later in the year than autumn-born children may not be as prepared for Reception.

5. They may be wrongly labelled as having special needs

There’s firm evidence that younger children are more likely to be labelled as having special educational needs or differences than their autumn-born peers, when in fact their development is – understandably – behind the older children’s because of their age rather than any underlying learning difficulty.

6. They might struggle with friendships

It’s been shown that summer-born children may have more difficulties with friendships than the older children in their year.

In part, this may be because they’re less likely to go to a school nursery in the year before starting Reception, so they don’t know as many children in their class as those who have been in nursery together.

Their social skills may also be less developed than older pupils’, which can impact friendships and even lead to bullying. ‘They’re likely to be less confident than their older peers,’ adds Dr Benhenda.

Should you delay your summer-born child starting school?

Children reach compulsory school age at the start of the term after their fifth birthday.

This means children born between April and August don’t have to start school (or receive other suitable education, such as home education) until the September after turning five.

It's  your right as a parent to defer their school entry until this point, but your child may automatically enter Year 1, rather than Reception, and effectively miss out on a whole year of learning.

Increasingly, schools are allowing parents to delay their summer-born child’s start date until the September after they turn five, but admit them to Reception rather than Year 1.

To apply for your summer-born child to start Reception in the September after their fifth birthday, you’ll need to make a request to the admission authority: the local authority in the case of maintained schools, or (usually) the governing body of a Voluntary Aided (VA) or Voluntary Controlled (VC) school, academy or free school.

You still need to apply for a place during the usual application period, but can submit your request at the same time.

Is it worth holding your child back a year? ‘Some research suggests that deferring school entry simply postpones learning and is likely not worth the long-term cost, especially among children from poorer families and those who have few educational opportunities outside the public school system,’ says Dr Benhenda.

But some parents firmly believe that by delaying school entry, their child will be better able to cope at school.

Ultimately, the decision to request deferred entry to Reception is up to each individual family.

The Summer-Born Campaign provides information and support if you’re weighing up whether to defer your child starting school.

How schools can help summer-born children succeed

Some schools are good at taking the age differences within a class into account, while others are less attuned to the potential challenges facing summer-born children.

‘Schools should recognise the impact of relative age, and the fact that, particularly at school entry, summer-born children are so much younger than autumn-borns,’ says Dr Campbell.

Some of the ways in which schools can support summer-born children include:

  • Adjusting test scores where possible – currently, compulsory assessments are not age-standardised, but informal tests set by schools themselves can be, and schools can be sensitive to relative age effects in their interpretations of results and communication of levels to parents.
  • Differentiating work according to the different levels of understanding and ability in the class: this should happen throughout schools, but may be particularly important in the lower years, where there may be bigger age-related differences.
  • Ensuring summer-born children are given the same opportunities as their older peers – for example, not just picking the older children for leadership roles, sports teams and so on.
  • Giving children the chance to work in mixed ability groups, at least some of the time, to avoid summer-born children being pigeonholed as lower ability.
  • Devoting plenty of time to child-led activities and learning through play in Reception, allowing children to learn at a pace that’s right for them.
  • Giving extra support to children (regardless of birthdate) who are struggling in areas such as maths or English, for example by working in a small group with an appropriately trained teaching assistant, or the class teacher.
  • Making sure summer-born children who may not have existing friendships on starting school integrate with the rest of the class, for instance through playground games, group work, etc.
  • Having realistic expectations of younger children, not just educationally but in terms of skills like toileting, dressing and undressing, sharing, social skills, motor skills, etc.
  • When asking for answers in class, waiting a little longer to make sure all children get a chance to put their hand up – younger children may take longer to process questions.

How you can support your summer-born child’s learning

If your child is summer-born, it’s worth making sure their teacher is aware of the fact.

‘Primary schools should discuss the maturity of their pupils with parents, and consider it in both teaching and marking,’ says Dr Benhenda.

This will help them have a better understanding of your child’s development and maturity, so they have realistic expectations.

You can also ask them how they’ll differentiate learning to account for the different ability levels in the class, and if there’s any extra support, such as spending some time working one-to-one or in a small group with a teaching assistant or volunteer helper.

If you have concerns about your summer-born child falling behind at school, make an appointment to speak to their teacher: addressing issues early may mean strategies can be put in place before the gap widens further.

And if your school doesn’t interpret and report assessment levels in light of relative age, ask them about this. Be aware that a lower score or level, especially in the earlier years, may simply reflect your child being younger, rather than less able.

Moving to secondary school

Your child may worry about their SATs results if their summer birthday has had an impact on their scores, and fear that they’ll put in lower sets at secondary school.

Most secondary schools, however, set additional tests known as CATs to determine which set or stream students are put in, as well as or instead of using SATs results. CATs are age-standardised, so you can reassure your child that their birthdate will be taken into account.

If your child is sitting the 11+ for entry to a grammar school, these results are generally age-standardised so your child won't be disadvantaged by being summer-born.

Your child may also have some worries about being the very youngest in an entire school of pupils up to 16 or 18 years old. If they’re feeling sensitive about their age, have a discreet word (usually by email) with their form tutor, who can look out for them and give them any support and encouragement that they need.

Premature babies and school

Like summer-born children, children born prematurely may face extra difficulties at school, and are significantly less likely to achieve a ‘good level of development’ at the end of Reception.

Some may have special educational needs or disabilities as a result of their prematurity, but even those who don’t have an official diagnosis can struggle with things like concentration, motor development, social and behavioural skills, memory and processing speed.

This may be particularly pronounced if a child’s premature birth means they fall into the ‘wrong’ year group – for example, if a child expected to be born in September (making them the oldest in their year) is born in July or August (making them the youngest).

Most of the guidance above will apply to preterm children who are developmentally behind other children in their year group, so it’s important to tell their teacher that they were born prematurely so they’re aware of potential differences.

You can ask to speak to the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) who can work out a plan to support them, which might include referring them to a specialist like a speech and language therapist or educational psychologist.

You might also want to consider delaying a prematurely summer-born child so they start Reception in the academic year in which they ‘should’ have been.

The admissions authority must take into account whether your child has any emotional or social delays, the views of medical professionals involved in their care, and whether your child would have fallen into a different year group if they’d been born at full term.

These considerations may make it more likely that they’ll grant your request to defer your child’s Reception start date until they’ve turned five.