Expectant parents in England with a September due-date will no longer have to hope that their baby doesn’t arrive too early. The UK schools minister Nick Gibb recently announced that he will amend the school admissions code to clarify that no child will be forced to start school when they have just turned four.
His changes make clear that summer-born children (whose birthdays fall between April 1 and August 31) have the right to begin reception in the September following their fifth birthday – rather than being required to start the previous year, at four.
They will also be permitted to remain within their reception class cohort throughout compulsory education.
Previous versions of the admissions code have been more ambiguous, and resulted in inconsistent practices across local authorities.
Requests and appeals for summer-born children to enter school at five have not always been granted. The child’s location, or the tenacity of their parents, has too often played a significant part in determining their school starting date.
In theory, and in the short term, the new changes are largely positive. But they are not without their problems, and provide only a partial solution to a deeper issue.
More time for children to thrive
For those summer-borns who now begin at five, later entry to formal schooling could certainly be an advantage in the present context.
There is substantial evidence that the current reception curriculum is developmentally inappropriate for four-year-olds. And there is a disconnect between some of its demands and the capabilities of young children.
For example, speech therapists advise that many four-year-olds cannot yet pronounce the full range of speech sounds. But the curriculum requires that these same children demonstrate their recognition of letters by vocalising them.
This can be an impossible task. Even more so for three-year-olds in school nurseries, who are increasingly required to cover the same material, due to downward pressure from reception.
Occupational therapists also argue that the full range of skills necessary to begin writing are not present in most children until at least five years old. Yet the reception curriculum expects four-year-olds to “write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others”.
If all parents take up their right to delay reception entry for their summer-born children, they will be better equipped to thrive under the current curriculum. They will be less likely to have their confidence and enthusiasm knocked by unjustified expectations. And they might be less likely to be wrongly diagnosed with special educational needs, simply due to their age.
In addition, evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that differences according to a child’s month of birth can, in part, be explained by the absolute age of children at assessment. So children who enter school at an older age will generally be older when they are tested and might do better academically.
Expectations are inappropriate
But the changes to the admissions code will not be a solution to the inherent unsuitability of expectations on children in the early years.
The experiences of summer-borns whose entry to reception is delayed until they are five may well improve, but the amendments will not help a child born in March, who must still start reception at four-and-a-half and who is not yet ready for the curriculum.
In addition, they might not help a summer-born whose parents, despite the revisions, chose to start their child’s schooling at four. Nor will they help a child whose parents remain unaware of their right to delay.
And it is conceivable that trends will emerge in the types of families who start their summer-born child at five. However, it will not necessarily be the case – as suggested by some commentators – that only more privileged families will delay.
In Scotland, where flexible school entry has long been in place, evidence suggests “no significant differences in deferral by key parental socio-economic characteristics”. In other words, higher income families are not more likely to delay their child than lower income families.
There are some key elements of the Scottish system that, if followed in England, might ensure that the readiness of the child takes priority, rather than their parents’ situation or their ability to negotiate the system.
First, all very young children whose entry is delayed are entitled in Scotland to an additional year of free pre-school education. Second, the overall minimum school starting age comes later in Scotland – at four-and-a-half rather than four. This means that proportionately more children are ready – socially, emotionally, and cognitively – to benefit from formal schooling and that there is less incentive for strategic delay.
More changes are still needed
There are various ways in which these changes to the admission code may play out in context, particularly in the long term – but the context is crucial. While aspects of the reception curriculum remain fundamentally unsuited to young children, it will not enable them to thrive.
Children are not mechanical black boxes into which extra education can simply be forced at an earlier and earlier age to produce better results. For education to be effective, it must be appropriate to children’s development. The current change in policy, while valuable for some, will probably not improve early schooling – or eventual attainment – for the majority. More discussion – and more change – is still needed.