Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 09:58 UK

Is this the worst day of the year to be born?

Newborn - just 20 minutes old

It's a date prospective parents try to avoid if told their baby is due on 31 August. Neil Hallows - whose own daughter's birthday falls on this day - asks why.

This is the time when bad birthdays turn good.

In a society where parental ambition leads some to fake their address or religious faith to give their little ones the best start in life, 31 August is gaining a certain reputation.

Summer-borns tend to lose out at school because, in England and Wales, 1 September is the cut-off date for school entry, so they can be up to a year younger than their classmates.

Frank Lampard
June baby Frank Lampard

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies two years ago found only 53% of girls and 47% of boys born in August reached the expected educational level at age seven in state primary schools in England, compared with 80% and 70% of those born in September.

Their sporting prowess is affected too. Older children tend to be bigger and more confident, receive more encouragement, and their advantage grows over time. For unto everyone who hath shall be given.

Among the 25 most capped England football players, 11 were born between September and November, while only one, Frank Lampard, was born between June and August. In his case, having an England international for a father probably outweighed the disadvantage.

So for educational and sporting opportunities, the cruellest and kindest months sit next to each other in the calendar like resentful neighbours.

Reception

We never thought about it, and I'm glad we didn't, when our daughter arrived two hours before midnight on 31 August, 2005. She looks awfully young to be starting school next week, although my word, she's up for it.

Primary school girl at canteen
Four can seem young to start school

But should parents be thinking twice as to what time of year they have children?

When I raise the issue on the parenting website Mumsnet, a large number of respondents say their children have faced disadvantages by being the youngest in their class. But only one says she made a conscious effort to try for a September or October baby.

A teacher, she has witnessed the difference in achievement between older and younger children, and thinks her sister's school career has been marred by an August birth. If anyone is likely to be a pioneer of seasonal planning, it is she.

But her comments are telling: "Not that I would have stopped trying had I not fallen pregnant at the best time though - I wasn't that concerned."

After all, it can take months, or years, to get pregnant and the desire to do so often overshadows the niceties of diary planning. And other mothers point out they are having children later in life, and cannot afford the luxury of holding off for several months until the "best" season swings into view.

Long walks and curry

If, however, you are already pregnant, there might be a temptation to try to tip the birth date one way or another.

Opening presents
Please come to my party, 25 Decem... oh, you're busy

Betty Kellett, a midwife based in London and Essex with 38 years experience, has noticed a growing number of women due to give birth on the cusp of August and September who try to do their unborn child a favour.

"There is such competition, especially for good schools, and parents have become much more aware," she says.

So what can women safely do? When they go beyond their due date, long walks are often recommended as a way of naturally inducing labour. Mrs Kellett says those wishing to delay matters for several days may instead choose to rest up.

While a September birthday has grown in importance in the past few years, it is not the only time of year on parents' minds. Spring remains a popular time to have a baby, she says, as it means mothers can avoid being heavily pregnant during hot weather.

And certain bogey dates like Christmas Day, Friday 13th and 29 February are avoided by many parents if they can.

"In the past, March was popular. Everybody wanted a baby then because it was the end of the financial year and you had a good tax rebate."

Numbers game

This is starting to get confusing, as there seem to be ever more seasons or dates to avoid. If you worry about the education statistics for August babies, how about the increased risk of Alzheimer's when born in March, allergies in autumn or arthritis in November?

GCSE exam results
Can birth date have an impact?

It might sound like astrology, but these have all been media health stories based, sometimes misleadingly, on scientific studies which may be small or only relevant to specific countries. Those born in May are perhaps the most confused - they are apparently the most optimistic and yet also the most suicidal.

Perhaps our family saying is right after all: "There's never a right time to get pregnant." It's not meant as a discouragement, but the opposite, to show these things should not be over-planned.

The answer might be not to plan our babies around the system, but make our system slightly more accommodating to the babies.

Helen Brown, head teacher of St Mary's Catholic First School in Wool, Dorset, says there has to be a cut-off point for school entry, and those born near it will always be the most affected. But she would like to see schools given more flexibility in where they can place children.

"In almost every year group, in every school I have worked in, there has been at least one child who has been an August birth for whom I have thought, if only they could now repeat that reception year they would fare well.

"It's not that they didn't have the ability, it's not that there were any underlying problems. It's just that they were too young for their year."

He will be playing catch-up for years
Gemma Catchpole, on her July-born son

Gemma Catchpole, a mother of four children in Sussex, says summer-born children are not only penalised by their age but by aspects of the educational system.

Her seven-year-old son, with a July birthday, would have had an extra year at pre-school had he been a few weeks younger. And the admissions policy where she lives means he had to attend reception class part-time for two terms until Easter, whereas the oldest children in the year could attend full-time from September.

He has struggled at school and has recently been diagnosed with dyslexia, but had to wait until near his seventh birthday before the necessary tests could be carried out. An older child could have been diagnosed three terms earlier.

"He will be playing catch-up for years," she says.

BORN ON 31 AUGUST
Actor Richard Gere
Singer Van Morrison
Cricketer Clive Lloyd
Professor Sir Bernard Lovell, founder of Jodrell Bank
Singer Debbie Gibson

Anecdotally, Scottish educational authorities tend to show more flexibility than those in England and, as the cut-off point north of the border is the end of February, the youngest children starting reception class are four and a half rather than four and perhaps better able to deal with the experience.

Mrs Brown reassures parents that reception teachers are well aware of the disparities in children's ages, and place a huge emphasis on supporting children's personal and social development. So many summer-borns fare well.

I hope ours will. I've been feeling in the past few weeks, as she gets ready to start school, that the best birthday present we could buy her would be a different birthday. But parental influences, good or bad, surely still count more than the accident of a birth date.

If she is like her mother and father, she will love books, be hopeless at sport, and not so much cry over spilt milk as write long articles about it four years after she dropped the cup. Good luck Lila, and happy birthday.


Below is a selection of your comments.

My friend had identical twin girls either side of midnight on 31 August/1 September and was devastated when they had to be split into different school years. The girl who started school a year later did far better in her exams.
Dee, St Helens, UK

My daughter was born on 8 September - deliberately conceived to be born in the first week of September. Her actual due date was 1 September - a date my teaching colleagues (yes, I was a teacher at the time) found hilarious. On the evening of 31 August a group of friends and I sat and counted the minutes to midnight, determined to see my baby past the date we all feared. She then had the audacity to keep us all waiting another eight days. I've now remarried and my husband has twins from a previous marriage. Born 10 weeks prematurely, and with all the issues that prematurity can bring, they had the misfortune to be born on, yes - you've guessed it - 31 August. That they have been disadvantaged by their birth date is without question. Another year in primary, another year of maturity before GCSEs would have made all the difference to them. It's not easy growing up being the worst, the least able for no other reason than the fate of your birthday.
Cath Pickles, Southwold, UK

It is my daughters 9th birthday today - 31 August, she was born at 11.30pm. I feel she has really suffered at school. She was a month premature and I tried to keep her back a year but the authorities refused. Having an older daughter born in November, I can see the difference it has made. She is also very small for her age and I feel the current system is very unfair.
Kate Robinson, Northampton, England

My son was born on 30 August, but the cut off date for schools in N Ireland is 30 June. So ironically here "summer babies" are the oldest in their class and probably do have that developmental "edge" in the early years of schooling.
Gillian, Belfast

This story annoys me. I was the youngest child in every school I attended and never felt inferior or disadvantaged, never needed any help, and spent most of my time feeling frustrated by the speed of teaching because they had to spend extra time helping the older kids understand what was going on. Being older always seemed to a disadvantage to me as that extra 12 months at home meant their fragile little minds must have been corrupted by watching more Bagpuss or Rainbow.
Phil Bailey, Poole, Dorset

Where I grew up, the cut-off was December/January, and as a late December baby I was the youngest one in my year - by quite a lot as it turned out since the second youngest had an October birthday. When I started school I suffered from the separation from my mum more than most children, and it took me a while to get my head around reading. But by the time we left primary school, I was top of my class and stayed there until the end of secondary school so I really don't think people should worry too much about it. The younger children will catch up.
CC, UK

Our daughter was born two weeks early, on 27 August. It was clear when she started school that she didn't have the stamina and attention span that the older children had in her class. Until around 10 or 11 she was always playing catch-up and her achievements were average. But she has just got four As in her A-levels, so it hasn't damaged her long term. I would say she is probably more reserved than many, though she claims that's because she's the oldest. She believes that birth order has more impact than actual birth date, and that kids with older siblings learn from their siblings and are more confident and socially adept.
John, Huntingdon

I wonder what some of the comment writers would like to have done about the system - would they like all August babies to be moved into the year below? All this would do is put the July babies at the same disadvantage. There has to be a cut off somewhere, and if a child happens to be born just inside one school year, then they will just be statistically disadvantaged. Tough luck - there will always be a youngest person in the year, nothing will change that.
James, Bradford, England

Here in Canada it's very different. The cut off is 31 December so it's "December Boys" who are renowned for struggling - but it's very common to keep them back a year and either start a year later or repeat kindergarten. In recent years it's become unusual to repeat any grade, but back in the day, repeating it was common. Now other strategies are used which are less demoralizing for children. But I always regretted repeating a class I had come top of, and consequently losing a full year of my life.
Mel Morris, Burlington, Ontario

I was born on 4 September, so was one of the oldest children in my class at primary school. In secondary school, though, I started a year early, as my parents and the teachers thought I was bright enough to cope with the work and felt it unfair to keep me back for the sake of four days. I was never good at sport, even in primary school, but I certainly didn't suffer academically. It's not just the birth date, it's the inherent ability of the child.
Elaine, Sheffield, UK

I was born on 31 August and as a result, I got extra attention from teachers at school. I was always told how intelligent I was considering that I was a year younger than some of my classmates, which actually spurred me on to do well.
Victoria Graham, Kenilworth, UK

Our baby was due on 27 August and we wanted him to be born BEFORE 1 September to help avoid that extra year of childcare; not only for financial reasons but for the awkwardness of it (we live 120 miles from both sets of grandparents so it's not easy). As it happened he came on 9 September and we realised we weren't that bothered because he is the most amazing thing to ever happen to us.
Phil Beasley, Newcastle

I was 10 days late as a child resulting in me being a September baby instead of an August child. I was treated with extra privileges at school for being the oldest in the class and enjoyed a lot of responsibility. As a result I was always a "leader" and have been assigned management roles quickly in various jobs.
Kathy, Manchester, England

I was born on 30 August and although I was always younger than my mates - I never felt the disadvantage, I'm just as confidence and have always kept up I got 10 GCSEs, an IT qualification and a degree - all before I was 20. Age does not mean anything - you don't realise the age gap until your older and all your mates are turning 18 and going down the pub and you can't.
Sam Cairns, High Wycombe, Bucks

I was a June baby and did well at school. However, I was in "proper" kindergarten from the age of 3 so that may have had something to do with it. I was a bright child and had that reinforced by my teachers and parents; perhaps it's more about self-belief.
Pamela Brooke, London, UK

I was born on 5 September, was moved ahead in primary school until Year 3 as I found school easy, then had to do Year 3 again to get back in my age band. Effectively, by being born five days late for the cut-off, I lost a whole year of my adult life as I could have gone through the education system and university a year earlier... I just wished my Mum had pushed a bit sooner.
Steve Earl, Swindon, UK

We used to live in Germany, where parents had the option of holding back their children by a year before starting school - parents of boys born in the summer often did this. The advantage of being an older child is often far higher than completing studies a year earlier, but having struggled all the way, and perhaps failing to get into a good university as a result.
Edward, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

Being born on 28 August 1990 I understand parts of this, and yes at times I struggled to keep up with classmates. But I was blessed with a fast mind and am now doing a degree part-time with a well-paid job. The nurture factor of my upbringing has benefitted me, so not all babies born at the end of August are lost causes by all means.
Whitney Robinson, Whitehaven, UK

One simple remedy would be for young children to enter school the following year. My own children missed the cut-off date for starting school by a few weeks. Other mothers pushed me to appeal, and undoubtedly they would have passed the entry test. Most children I knew could have passed it at three. We as a country are keen for children to start school as early as possible - perhaps as childcare is easier and free, and parents can work with less worry. I conducted a bit of research of my own and found, 20 years ago, there was evidence that starting school later has many advantages. Perhaps this is why children in other European countries start at six or seven. My own girls were five and a half when they started official schooling and were more mature and capable than some of their very young counterparts. I felt, and still feel sorry for children who enter the exam-filled rat race when not quite ready for it.
Alison Turner, Beith, Scotland

I was on 31 August but, at the age of five or six, a decision was made by the head teacher and my parents that I should repeat a year, as I was struggling mostly due to being the youngest. This had a huge impact on me throughout school, as being amongst the oldest children in the year was definitely an advantage. I can only imagine how different my experience would have been had this decision not been made. I guess that I owe a lot to that teacher.
Mark Stokes, Cambridge, UK

My experience was the opposite of Mark's. Also born on 31 August, I was the oldest in the class until age seven, when they decided I should be in the year above, so I skipped a year. I wasn't given any extra help and missed some important stuff (like arithmetic). Somehow they thought I'd just pick it up. Oh well, it was the 70s, after all. In addition to the academic challenges, I also remember a huge change in how I behaved with my peers, going from one of the most confident members of the class to being rather quiet and withdrawn. Later on I managed to do quite well academically, but I still wonder now and then how things would have been. A lot of problems I experienced can (somewhat subjectively) be traced back to this decision. Regardless of this, had they put me in the correct year in the first place, or left me where I was, things would have been easier.
Max, Edinburgh

The statistics around educational ability are interesting. However, how much of this is due to staggered intakes in certain areas? My daughter was born on 14 July and due to start school in Easter 2010. Believe me, she is ready for it now. I know that this is the last year in some LEAs for staggered intakes, so it will be interesting to see the stats in a few years time when the impact of one intake per annum can be truly assessed.
Simon Atkinson, Woodley, Reading, Berkshire

My lad's an August boy and has just completed his first year at school. On the day he started I was convinced he was too young and little - he was the smallest boy as well as the youngest in the school. How did he cope? The other kids and school ethos was fantastic and he flew - I look back now and can see that his age made no difference and he has loved being at school.
Paul Hone, Maidenhead

My son was born on 4 September so when he started school he was five and the oldest in his class. His teacher said that his maturity is more than the other children and his work is top of the class, it is an advantage to be older at this stage in school. My daughter was born in October so will also be one of the oldest when she starts school, which I've learned is a good thing.
Jade, Devon

My son's birthday is this Wednesday (2 September). He is the oldest in his class and he is very bright, but in his own unique way, so he's not the best in his class at anything. Neither is he the tallest, fastest or whatever. All children develop at different rates and in different ways. These sorts of systems are stupid anyway, schools don't reflect the abilities of the children in them, nor the needs of society. They are just somewhere to park your child while you have to go out to work, and when your daughter grows up, she will probably have to do the same.
Julie, Leeds

Surely it can't make that much difference? I have a June birthday and I do well at school. I started reception full time two terms later than older members of my class, but that doesn't seem to have held me back.
Hannah Farley, Ipswich, England

When I grew up in Belgium - and I believe it still is the case - children started school when they were ready, not when the cut-off date said they should. I myself was a year early and never had any problems but I was lucky I guess. Also in Belgium, primary starts a year later than in the UK and children are just that little more mature. I am sure every system has its pros and cons but I feel that the Belgium system served me and my daughter better than the UK system served my son, born on 28 June and too young to start school as far as I am concerned.
Marc, Barcelona, Spain

It's my 23rd birthday today and I was the youngest person in my year all the way through school. But I don't think this was in any way a disadvantage. I have two older brothers, which naturally made me more confident and more eager to go to school, and my parents made sure that I could already do the basics of reading and writing before I went into reception. I finished school with straight As and as captain of the rugby team, and I went on to graduate with a first in engineering from Cambridge. The main problem is that parents do not always prepare their children well enough for going to school, or they seem to think that their children are too quiet or too shy or too young. But in reality most kids will probably do well if you give them the confidence and a bit of grounding before they go.
Luke, Preston, Lancs

Incidentally, the England football statistic may be misleading. There have been 296 England footballers born since the end of World War II, with birthdays distributed thus:
Jan 23
Feb 35
Mar 22
Apr 20
May 19
Jun 14
Jul 24
Aug 27
Sep 20
Oct 37
Nov 29
Dec 26
Simon Stephenson, Windermere, UK



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