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Pressure mounts on Government to let parents decide when summer-born children start school

Article By: Ellie Neville Media and Marketing Manager

The question of the school starting age for summer born children reached a peak in September with a House of Commons debate on the issue. MPs Annette Brooke and Elizabeth Truss spoke out in support of the campaign for parents to decide when their summer-born child will start reception class, be that at four or a year later at five.

However there is some concern that this is might not be enough to help disadvantaged summer-borns who often struggle to keep up academically with their older peers. Elizabeth Truss Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare Currently children do not have to start school till they reach the compulsory school age of five, however the majority of summer-born children start school at age four and some are an entire year behind their classmates. Subsequently many argue these children are not ready for school and can easily fall behind. Starting school struggling can stay with children throughout their education.

Parents, who have enquired at schools about a child starting a year later, are pointed in the direction of the local authority to gain permission. Often the response is; a child can be kept behind a year but subsequently they will have to forgo the crucial reception year and start age five in year 1. To parents with a real concern this is not a satisfactory conclusion and one that could even exacerbate the issue because they will miss out on the crucial reception year.

The recent support in Parliament seems like a breakthrough for campaign groups such as the Campaign for Flexible School Admissions for Summer-Borns, whose main argument is for the school starting age to be at the parents’ discretion.

This message certainly seems to have resonated with MP Annette Brooke who told “I am very concerned about children starting formal school when they are barely aged four and all the pressures there are on parents to let their child start in the September regardless of their birth date during the year. Taking the example of a premature baby born on 31st August it is fairly obvious that there may well be a case for deferring the start of formal school and indeed starting in reception aged five. Similarly there will be some children born in July and August who developmentally are not ready for school. I believe there must be flexibility and true choice for parents.”

Elizabeth Truss echoed this view in the Westminster debate on the issue: “We are absolutely clear that parents should be able to say to a school, ‘We want our child, who is aged five, to enter reception’, if they feel that that is in the best interests of their child. That is what we are elucidating in the new guidance that we issued this summer and that is what we will be following up on with local authorities and schools.”

Aside from parental flexibility, various other solutions to the summer-born problem have been suggested including a recent proposal from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which suggested testing at primary level should be adjusted to take into account a child’s age. This thesis was criticised by Dr Richard House a senior lecturer at Winchester University and author of ‘Too Much Too Soon? – Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood.’ Dr Richard House senior Lecturer in Education (Early Childhood), University of Winchester and chair, Early Childhood Action (ECA) He said: “Tinkering with exam results and test scores however ingeniously doesn’t begin to respond to the emotional and psychological impact of being nearly a year younger than one’s peers in what is a highly competitive schooling milieu.

“The IFS proposal is also an extremely blunt instrument and could potentially discriminates against non-summer-borns (which is equally unfair). If we accept that some summer-borns are not disadvantaged by early school starting then to have indiscriminate adjustments made to the exam scores for all summer-borns based purely on age would then be discriminating again non summer-borns.”

However positive the backing of MPs for parental flexibility for summer-borns the some are arguing that true problems lies in the early age children formally start school in Britain (five). Ms Brooke recognised this when she stated: “The problems particularly stems from the early start to schooling in this country.” If we accept that this is the root problem it is surprising how in the context of summer-borns there has been little suggestion to change the legal school age in Parliament.

While strongly supporting the newly emphasised flexibility for summer borns as far as it goes, Dr House also advocates looking at the wider issue of England’s school starting age as a more comprehensive solution: “If children begin more formal academic learning/schooling at age six or seven (as they do in some 90 per cent of the world’s education systems), such age differences then have substantially less impact than they do when quasi-formal learning effectively begins at four as in England.”

There are other reasons that suggest a change in legal school age would make for a better solution than simply parental flexibility. Some parents may struggle to come to a decision of what is best for their child in the long term.

Also there are financial factors which may impact on a parent’s decision to start their child at four. In today’s economic climate. working parents struggle to afford rising childcare costs and keeping a child out of school for a further year can mean another year of expensive childcare.

In response to a question on this issue Dr House said: “This is a hugely important cultural issue that really needs fearlessly addressing. Of course there will be some parents who want their children off their hands as soon as possible, for in one sense, school is effectively free childcare. Without wishing to be at all judgmental it certainly seems that a crude kind of economic materialism still dominates many parents’ lives. I really think that we need to start asking fundamental questions about the kind of society that the current economic system is producing and whether it is the Government’s legitimate role to ‘oil the wheels’ of the existing system, or proactively take the edge off its worse excesses. I’m far more of the latter view.”

Wealthier parents who do not have the same financial concerns may be more inclined to put their child’s education first and the cost of childcare second. They may have one parent who is at home, a nanny or au pair. Pauline Hull, founder of the Campaign for flexible School Admissions for Summer-Borns, also touched upon this issue on the campaign’s website recently.

“This is a genuine concern – that wealthy middle class parents (however many of them there truly are now…) may be in a better position to allow their summer-born children to wait until they’re five before starting school. An IFS report in 2006 identified these very same concerns, and suggested that flexibility for poorer parents should be supported by nursery places equivalent to school hours (summer born children who wait to start school until age five are currently entitled to 15 hours of free learning per week).

“Obviously there are parents who can afford to private educate, but looking at the state sector alone – wealthier parents can afford to buy the more expensive homes closest to the ‘best’ schools in the area; they can spend hundreds, even thousands, of pounds on home tutors to prepare their children for exams… During the school holidays, well educated parents are more likely to read to, and with their children at home.”

An older compulsory school starting age would help to eradicate this concern of class divide and most importantly school would be made ready for children not children made ready for school. However it would be wrong to state that parental flexibility is not a step in the right direction, especially when compared with the struggle parents currently and historically have been facing. Michelle Melson’s son is summer-born, she took steps to defer her son’s start at school.

“I didn’t realise there would be a problem in starting my son in reception the term after his fifth birthday, after all that is compulsory school age and reception is primarily defined in legislation as being a class for five-year-olds. It’s only when I stumbled across something on the internet last Christmas that I realised there could be a problem.” Michelle Melson, parent of summer-born son Ms Melson sought support from others, including her local MP who wrote to the Secretary of State on her behalf regarding what powers the local authority had; her campaign took six months of stressful negotiations with her local authority before permission was finally granted. Not all parents will be willing or brave enough to go to lengths such as this and not all parents have the knowledge of the legislation to back up their case. Ms Melson was surprised at the some of the responses from her local authority who she describes as “ignorant to all of the relevant legislation”.

“They often stated things as fact, which were anything but, such as ‘reception class is intended for children who are under compulsory school age.’

It is clear Ms Melson will take whatever steps she needs to ensure her son has the best start at school and she fully supports the 'Too Much, Too Soon' campaign.

“Sending him to school at just turned four would be ‘too much, too soon.’ We don’t want our son to cope; we want him to have the opportunity to thrive.”

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Philip Hood

10 Oct 2013 11:10 AM

Across both Nursery and Primary schools there are immense numbers of very able EYFS teachers and practitioners who want to be able to (and do) construct developmentally appropriate learning experiences for 3-5 year olds. The underlying message from policy makers currently is that there should be a more formal curriculum in F2/YR. It is this which is the problem, not the school starting age. If settings are ready for the children who come to them then they can do a lot of very valuable work in the 3 prime areas of the EYFS framework which will prepare children for more formal schooling at an age that the rest of the world deems appropriate. We would not lose out if children in Y2 were the ones who first encountered greater formality in the core subjects. As everyone acknowledges, the Finns do this very well!