Does when you are born matter?

According to The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) a child conceived this month (December) has the best chance in life of achieving happiness, good prospects and high earnings.  However, this is not some random fluke of nature; it is down to the simple fact that a child conceived in December will be born, most likely, in September, and therefore be one of the oldest in the school year.

When the Institute published their report “Does when you are born matter?” last month most of the newspapers chose to report on it in typical scaremongering fashion with headlines such as “August babies 'more likely to leave school at 16, binge drink and suffer bullying’” (Daily Mail) and “August babies underperform, compared with older children in their school year, throughout their working lives” (Guardian). 

My son was born on 29th August and is the youngest in his school year.  He started school last year after I spent a number of months agonising over the decision and how it would affect him, eventually weighing up the advantages of him joining at the ‘normal’ time and being able to ‘storm, form and norm’ with the rest of his new classmates against any disadvantages associated with his age.  However, if the findings of the Institute are to be believed they would suggest that my son, at the grand old age of five, is already consigned to underperforming at school and beyond based on the month he was born. 

This is not the first study of its kind to identify the disadvantages that our school system creates for summer babies.  In fact, a previous study by the IFS, published in 2007, showed August-born children were significantly less likely to be academically successful than their September-born classmates. Much of the government’s current policy for the early years focuses on ensuring better outcomes for young children by early intervention and access to high quality childcare.  How frustrating then that they steadfastly refuse to address the issue of the age at which children start school, even going so far as to dismiss advice in the Cambridge Review of Primary Education (2009) that “children should delay the start formal schooling to the age of six” as ‘disappointing and out of date’.At school there are far fewer of the vital qualities required by young children to help them fulfill potential including a loving, caring and nurturing environment.  Younger boys are particularly disadvantaged in that many of the skills required of them in school do not develop until they are six or seven.  Starting school a year later would make a great difference to summer born babies; an extra year of the more informal, play-based education typically found in nurseries would enable them to grow in confidence, language and fine-motor skills, and to narrow the developmental gap between older children.    Out of the 34 European countries 20 start school at the age of six whilst eight nations, including Sweden, wait until children are seven.  In Great Britain children from all four countries start school as rising fives.  With this extra year or two you would assume that British children outperform their European counterparts?  Not so.  But, what they do find is that the gap between achievements of autumn born babies and those born in summer is far narrower, suggesting that there are real benefits to be reaped by starting school later.I find it frustrating that the government makes considerable policy changes based on some reports, including the Eppe Report and the Tickell review, but seem happy to dismiss other equally substantiated research as it doesn’t fit with their agenda.   Meanwhile the IFS report concludes that parents of August-born children tend to provide a ‘richer home learning environment’ in order to compensate.  I would concur; my son is a happy, well-balanced and outgoing child who enjoys learning, which I attribute, in the main, to his upbringing.