Summer-born children, who would be the youngest entering their school, should be allowed to defer entry for up to a year, says the schools secretary.
Ed Balls wants greater flexibility over starting ages for school
Ed Balls, launching a review of the primary school curriculum in England, wants greater flexibility for parents in when their children start school.
At present, many children born in August are beginning school in the September after their fourth birthday.
Mr Balls says this can put them at a disadvantage against older pupils.
Research commissioned by the government, published in the autumn, showed that even up to the age of 16, the youngest pupils are still behind their older counterparts.
Flexible start date
It found that while 60.7% of September-born girls and 50.3% of September-born boys achieved five good GCSEs. In contrast, 55.2% of August-born girls and 44.2% of August-born boys did so.
Underachievement at GCSE could lead to missing out on A-levels and university - and the schools secretary is asking Professor Jim Rose, who is carrying out the review, to consider how children could have more flexibility over their starting age.
The "root and branch" review of what is taught in primary schools was announced before Christmas.
In his letter from the schools secretary to Professor Rose, introducing the review, he highlights concern from parents of summer-born children.
"Entry to primary school can be problematic for summer-born children," writes Mr Balls.
"For example, summer-born children are up to a year younger than their classmates when they sit tests at the end of each key stage.
"This can affect their performance right through school age up to the age of 16.
"I would like your review to give particular consideration to how we can design the curriculum to improve outcomes for summer-born children.
"Some parents indicated that they would like greater flexibility over when their children can start primary school - for example having the choice to start in September, January or a whole year later."
Parents are not obliged to send children to school until they reach the age of five - but many parents with summer-born children enter them in school when they are four, so that they become five during their first school year.
Mr Balls says he has no plans to change the current compulsory starting age.
Beginning school at the age of five was established with the arrival of compulsory education in 1870 - and researchers say that it was not particularly influenced by educational concerns.
It reflected concerns about protecting children from a bad home environment from an early age - and it appealed to employers' expectations that starting early would mean that children would also leave school early and be ready for the labour market.
Pupils in England start at an earlier age than many other northern European countries, where six or seven is more typical.
We invited your thoughts on this subject:
With a September-born son and an August-born daughter (and myself a summer-born), I see at first hand the difference that a year can make to a student's academic readiness and maturity. Being the youngest is challenging academically (not necessarily a bad thing) and socially - but being the oldest can end up frustrating and boring, especially if a child is bright and feels "held back".
If only the school system allowed real personalisation of learning so that children could learn at an appropriate pace whatever their age and stage.
My daughter's birthday is August, and we faced the decision of her starting her local primary school in the September aged 4yrs 2 weeks or sending her to private school at a date of our choosing. After much thought we opted for private school and she started at about 4yrs 8mths and we haven't looked back. It is an ongoing struggle to pay the fees, but her education comes first. She is in a class of nine with a teacher and teaching assistant, and is blossoming. Many families do not have any choice. In an ideal world I would like to see staggered starting dates or starting school at a later age and smaller class sizes for all children.
D K, Worcester UK
While there is an argument to be had about the right time to start formal schooling and the content of the curriculum of the Foundation Stage and of Key Stage 1, if there are difficulties being encountered by summer born children, perhaps the contexts in which the lower achieving children are learning should be explored. It may well be that the achieving children are in learning environments where their teacher differentiate for their needs. Will someone also look at the impact of testing children at the end of KS1, at the same time, by the same methodology, bearing in mind the difference in their ages? Most standardised tests take account of the scoring in the test compared to the age of the child. SATs give a score and a level, not altered by age.
Early entry children can and do achieve, given the right environment within which to develop. If they are to start later, when will the outcry start that they are being disadvantaged against their peers?
Chris Chivers, Fareham, UK
I have a boy and a girl (aged 7 and 4) both who are both born in August. It was very disheartening with my son as he approached the end of reception year to be told he was way behind everyone in his class and 'very immature'. Consequently, the following week he started weekly private tuition that is still continuing and I'm relieved to say that he achieved excellent results in his Sats.
When his sister started school in September she had better communication skills as she already had an older sibling so I had less concern in that area. However, so I don't feel as though we are playing catch up academically she also started with weekly private tuition in September. I feel the extra tuition is necessary to bridge the 'year' gap as they are both the youngest in their academic years, hopefully putting them on an equal footing with their older peers.
Lisa Slingsby, Warrington, Cheshire
As a parent and a teacher I would agree with this, the summer born usually are less confident than their peers. Generally they lag behind in their work and lack maturity.
M Mills, Newbury
My son was born at the end of August he was just out of nappies when he started nursery! I think we both found it incredibly challenging in this day and age of competetive parenthood. For example turning up with a buggy to take him home was met with cant he walk? It is very hard on the younger ones both from a developmental point of view and socially when they are at such a young age. Always running to keep up. One point i must make is that teachers were not sympathetic to the fact and i hope that a solution that works is available soon for our summer born children.
Sarah Turner, BATH UK
I have a daughter born in May who is 12 months behind older children in her year. However, I have a son born in June who is taking GCSEs in year nine. going solely on age rather than ability would hinder my son but help my daughter, how do you legislate for that?
My birthday is in late July so I was one of the youngest in my year at school. Initially I was always educationally behind my peers at school, not really finally catching and then excelling until about age 9 or 10. I've ended up going to university and getting a 1st class degree in chemistry and a PhD, but I do think the differences in age within an academic year at nursery/primary school are really significant. The development of the brain is rapid at that age and you could be sitting beside someone that is nearly 25% older than you. If you have an annual-based academic system this is always going to be a problem unless you start education for all later so a year's difference in age becomes proportionally less significant. Under the current system, I would certainly deliberately plan the conception of any child so that they were born in October.
Terry, York, UK
I think it is good for there to be flexibility with younger children as to when they start school. I myself was an August child who started infant school a bit later to make up for the age gap.
However, my parents and grandparents used this time to teach me to read and count so that by the time I was in school, August baby or not, I would never struggle compared to children who had been there longer.
If parents use this time to educate their child it may be worthwhile in helping them improve their social skills before school. But if other parents are just going to put the children in front of the TV for another few months- they would be better off at school however far behind they may start!
Sara Daintree, Manchester
The problem is not that the children are younger, but that the teachers put pressure on the summer born to be as 'able' as the older children, this leads to disappointment and pressure.
No allowances are made in the class room, my own son who is August born, is bright and works hard but he's never praised by his teacher because he's not as good as the winter born children.
I'm a summer born- I was born at the end of July and started school just turned 4. I was slow to learn initially and didn't pick up until I was about 6, but am now in the final year of a biomedical sciences PhD- so I don't think it held me back. I think the problem lies in the government targets for 3 year olds and 5 year olds. Speak to any teacher and they think there is really no point worrying about targets at that age and just let children play and learn.
My son has a late June birthday and really struggled in his reception year at school because although academically bright he hadn't the social skills to achieve in a school environment.
Now in Yr 1 he is doing a lot better and if the option had been available that he started school a year later I would definitely have taken it.
As a Teaching Assistant working in the latter reception classes, I think allowing parents to opt whether their summer-born child begins their school life at 4 or 5 is a more manageable approach towards bridging the social gap that some children often face when starting school. Many of my friends and fellow pupils today are summer-born and started their schooling when they were 4 years old, but at the age of 18 and 19 are up at the top of the class, achieving higher grades and levels than those who have September/October birthdays.
Oriana, Bad Lippspringe, Germany
I'm an August baby, spent my entire school life as the baby of the class - but the only significant effect was a completely spurious reputation for brilliance as I graduated from university before my 21st birthday!
Megan, Cheshire UK