I researched about this for my first book, Free Will? As a teacher I am acutely aware of this, but it seems like nothing is ever done. However, the stats have consistently supported the fact that there is a problem with achievement and self-confidence. Let me explain.
In the UK, for example, children start school at aged 5. The cut-off date is September 1st. This means that a child can be born on September 1st and be in the same school year as someone born on August 30th LATER that same year. In other words, one child can be 60 months old, and another effectively 48 months old when they start school. Put another way, one child is a quarter of their life younger than another child in the same year group. Developmentally, this is huge. At that young age, language, spatial awareness, fine motor skills, cognitive and academic abilities and so on change massively over that period. As a teacher, and any primary school teacher will tell you, it is often that a child is seen as being less bright (and in Reception year or Key Stage 1, 5-7, this is particularly so) when if one takes the time to survey birthdays, the child is usually just late born in the academic year.
Many people just say, “Oh, they eventually catch up” but this is mostly wishful thinking in hoping and assuming that life is fair. It’s not really. What appears to happen is that these differences are compounded and self-confidence is continually affected, as well as other areas mentioned before.
As far as I can remember, the research started off with the recognition that ice hockey players in the top league, the NHL, were proportionally much more likely to have been born nearer the start of the academic year rather than at the end, meaning they were the older ones in the class. This data has been replicated in a recent study (reported in Science Daily). This article states:
Previous studies have demonstrated relative age effects (RAEs), which occur when those who are relatively older for their age group are more likely to succeed. For example, in elite Canadian youth ice hockey, roughly 40 percent of players are born in the first three months of the year while only 15 percent are born in the last three months.
The recent study found:
The research, led by Robert Deaner, associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley, shows that, on average, National Hockey League (NHL) draftees born between July and December are much more likely than those born in the first three months of the year to have successful careers. In particular, 34 percent of draftees were born in the last six months of the year, but these individuals played 42 percent of the games and scored 44 percent of the points accumulated by those in the study. By contrast, those born in the first three months of the year constituted 36 percent of draftees but only played 28 percent of the games and only scored 25 percent of the points.
In Britain, the latest research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has looked into school children, their achievement and self-esteem. The BBC reported:
It found children born in August scored substantially lower in national achievement tests and other measures of cognitive skills.
At the age of seven, they are more than three times as likely to be regarded as “below average” by their teachers in reading, writing and maths.
The subject has been researched for decades and studied in various countries with a cut-off date for admissions, says research economist Ellen Greaves, who co-authored the report.
She says there is a general consensus that the oldest in the year do better than their younger peers, and while the gap shrinks over time, it can persist through to GCSEs and have a long-lasting effect on employment opportunities.
The IFS research showed August-born children were 20% more likely to study for vocational qualifications if they stayed on in education, and 20% less likely to be at a leading university compared with a September-born teenager.
But the well-being of children is also affected:
“It is clear that the consequences of the month in which you were born extend beyond educational attainment. We find evidence that, particularly at younger ages, summer-born children are more likely to report being unhappy at school and to have experienced bullying than autumn-born children,” says Greaves.
The impact of date of birth on test scores is well documented. The August birth penalty is visible in scores at every age for children in English state schools, according to a 2007 IFS report.
Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey (2006) provide substantial evidence that these initial maturity differences have long-lasting effects on student performance across a number of OECD countries. And a 2010 study by the Higher Education Policy Institute found 28% of August-born children went to university compared with 32% of those born in September over a six-year period.
As a teacher, I can say that this is only too true. It would be fascinating to see the Special Education Needs (SEN) register for my and other schools. I imagine it will be weighted towards August born. As the BBC article states:
Dr Cullen, a former teacher and an August-born child, says while it is not best viewed as a life-long affliction, being the youngest in the year can affect a child’s confidence and self-esteem.
“Those early formative years influence attitudes and expectations about success, academically and socially, and that can possibly stay with an individual.”
Vivian Hill, an educational psychologist at the Institute of Education, says a “disproportionate number of children born in the summer months” are brought to her for help.
She says the way schools are organised means the younger children appear to be struggling when in fact they are where they should be for their age.
“While some do have needs that need to be addressed, for a lot of them it’s simply that they look like they are doing worse than the rest of the class. Developmentally they are eight, nine, 10 months younger and at that age, that’s a big difference.”
She says summer-born children can be typecast as low achievers by their teachers and they can start to view themselves as such.
“It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she adds.
Education expert and former teacher Chris Waterman says it is a fact of life that the youngest in any group will be the most vulnerable.
It would actually be a simple fix to create age standardised tests and scoring for primary school tests. In fact, the Year 4 optionals used to have to be submitted as age standardised scores, so it already exists, just not in official Year 6 (end of primary school) stats upon which children and schools are judged. A school with a small cohort and a randomly large number of late-born pupils are more likely to have poorer results than an average school and the teachers would probably be blamed. Stats are so important!
Philosophically speaking, this is as a result of the Sorites Paradox, which I have talked about many times. This implies that on a continuum of time, to delineate for anything, whether it be a law (16 for sex, 18 for voting) or a demarcation of species (transition through fossils) the delineation has to, in the end, be arbitrary. What differentiates the person who is 17 years 13 hours 59 minutes and 58 seconds from the person 2 seconds or 1 minute later? Nothing, ceteris paribus. But one can vote and another can’t.
However, with children coming to school, what differentiates one person born on August 30th and one on September 1st? Nothing when compared next to each other in isolation. But one will go to school a year earlier and have to compete with children fully a year older (and everywhere in between) for cognitive and physical development. As mentioned, at Reception year, that is fully a quarter of their lives worth of time. Compounded, this becomes an issue.
Sliding scales. It’s all about sliding scales. And fairness.
And why do I care so much? Two reasons.
1) I am a teacher, and this affects my work and judgement.
2) I have twin boys born on 28th August. They are presently 2.5 years old. I’d better get the text books out…