August’s child is behind the curve

Independent on Sunday, 12 May 2013

You know those parents who can tell you exactly how old their children are? Three years and four months, they say proudly, and if you’re like me you mentally round it up to three-and-half. Now it turns out they’re right to be so precise, as a difference of a month or two can be measured later on in exam results.

Children who are born in the summer perform less well at GCSE and are less likely to go to university than those born in September. The effect is so apparent that a think-tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has suggested that teenagers born earlier in the school year should be set higher pass marks in their GCSEs. Pass marks would stay the same for children born in February and March, for example, but be set lower for summer babies.

After getting over my initial scepticism – based largely on the fact that I was born in, ahem, late August – I think the IFS is on to something. It isn’t that children born in the summer are any less able, but they are up to a year younger than their peers and have less confidence. These things matter, in the sometimes brutal hierarchies of children, and from my own experience I’d say the disadvantages are social as well as academic.

I didn’t do badly in exams, even though the IFS has found that August babies are 6.4
percentage points less likely to achieve at least five Cs at GCSE. But I followed the script for August-borns by not going to a Russell Group university, and I hated school almost from the day I started. I was intensely conscious of being the youngest in the class; if I’d been born five days later, I wouldn’t have gone to school for another 12 months. It didn’t help that I came from a home where I was used to reading every day but was in other respects young for my age; I didn’t have siblings and we lived in a house in the middle of a park, so my experience of other children was next to nil.

The IFS says the accident of being born in July or August can have “potentially serious long-term consequences” on pupils’ lives, yet the September-to-August school year is an arbitrary invention. Initial disadvantage is reinforced by teachers and parents, who rate the academic ability of August-born children lower than their September-born peers. I know that any measure which seeks to compensate for bias tends to be met with howls of rage in this country, but whoever imagined that being born in summer was such a handicap?

The IFS’s suggestion of seven different pass marks, set according to month of birth, seems a bit clunky. I’d much rather see parents and teachers acknowledge the problem, and concentrate on building the confidence of the youngest children in class. We live in a test-obsessed culture, and kids have quite enough to handle without the unintended burden of calendar-related discrimination.

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