Stephen Hammond is MP for Wimbledon.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, after the marathon debate on the European Union Referendum Bill, I held an adjournment debate on the issue of summer-born and premature children being able to defer their start to school. As is often the case for such debates, my interest in this topic began with issues raised by constituents.
It is well documented that “summer born children” can suffer both long term development issues and a lag in educational attainment. A DfE study from last year showed that, at the end of their first year, children defined as summer-born were at a significant disadvantage when compared to older children. The study shows that two thirds of those born between May and August fail to meet the minimum expected levels in reading, writing, speaking, maths and other development skills, compared to slightly less than a third for those born between September and December.
This is understandably worrying for a parent of a child born in these months, but equally worrying is that, while intuitively one might expect this gap to decline as the child progresses, many studies show that children who are young for their year typically do worse in their GCSEs and are less likely to go to university.
In June this year, an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry confirmed the DfE study’s finding that younger children were twice as likely to have language and behavioural problems relative to their elder peers. It is also not unknown for some summer-born children to be told they have “special needs”.
Moreover, the experience of being persistently outperformed by more developed or older children in the year can lead to serious confidence and inferiority perceptions and bullying. All these, of course, are also risks facing premature children who start school before they are ready.
To their credit, the Department for Education and Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, issued guidelines entitled: “Advice on the Admission of Summer Born Children” last December to help combat these problems.
These guidelines say that “Parents may seek a place outside of their normal age group. In addition, the parents of a summer born child … may request that they are admitted outside of their normal age group to reception, rather than year 1.”
The advice also states that authorities must:
- Make decisions on the basis of each case and in the best interests of the child
- Take into account the views of the head teacher
- Inform the parents of the decision and set out clearly the reasons for the decision.
However – and there is always a however – there are issues about how these guidelines are being implemented. Local authorities are applying the guidelines across the country inconsistently, creating a postcode lottery for premature and summer born children. Indeed, initially my own Local Authority refused to allow a premature child defer their start to school and follow the guidelines as they are non-statutory. Non-statutory should not be confused with voluntary.
Whilst there is no statutory barrier to a child being admitted outside their normal age cohort, there is neither a right to insist nor a right to appeal. So whilst the guidelines state that a rationale must be set out, this does not confer any extra rights.
Some authorities allow a delayed entry to education, but then insist the child begins at Year One, not Reception, thus removing the intended benefit from starting school later. Some authorities who allow a child to start Reception a year later will then give no guarantee that the child will remain with this cohort post primary school. Parents are required to request again for their child to be education outside Year 6 and jump into Year 8, missing Year 7.
Finally, there are problems for parents of premature and pre-term babies. Some local authorities take no account of prematurity or where a due date would normally place a child.
To tackle these problems, I made three suggestions to the Minister.
- With regard to premature children, their due date rather than the birth date should be used in the definition or interpretation of the compulsory school age
- That parents of summer born children have an automatic right to defer with a similar provision for parents of premature children.
- And that once deferred, a child stays in that educational cohort through their educational career.
I am delighted that the Minister agreed to these suggested amendments to the admissions code. These changes will ensure that summer born children can be admitted to reception at the age of five, instead of having to go straight into Year 1 and that they can remain with this cohort as they progress through school.
Encouragingly the Minister also agreed to look into my suggestion of using a premature child’s due date, rather than their birth date, to determine when they should start school.
Nick Gibb and the Department for Education have really grasped this issue over the last year, and they should be thoroughly praised for doing so. The advice they published helped to relieve some of the confusion surrounding the process and, upon finding Local Authorities are not applying it as intended, they have again taken action.
Hopefully, when the DfE revises the schools admissions code we will finally be in a position where all children, no matter when they were born, have an equal opportunity to succeed at school and that all local authorities implement them fully, ending the current postcode lottery.