Mind the gap!

firstdayschool 007

This photo was taken on my daughter’s first day of school. She is bursting with pride and excitement– she just couldn’t wait to get to big school! She has also just turned four. She looks so small to me now- her book bag is almost as big as she is!

Although I’d heard that summer born children struggled at school, I was not remotely worried about her. She is incredibly social and was a seasoned nursery attender – she knew the drill. You may also not be surprised to hear that as the daughter of two academics (one of whom is also a speech-language therapist) she is pretty verbal. This is a child who at the age of two could use a word like ‘cacophony’ in a contextually appropriate way, having inferred the meaning from repeated readings of Hairy McLary.

And things started off well. Her first teacher was Miss Honey (I know – you couldn’t make it up!) and she went to an excellent school in Oxford in which the three form entry was organised by season of birth. All of the children in her class were born between May and August – a nightmare for birthday party season, but it meant she was with similarly young, small children. By Christmas they were going to different classes for various lessons, but because everyone in the class was doing the same thing, the kids had no idea that they were being ‘set’.

In the New Year we moved to London and she became one of the youngest in the class. Her glowing report from Oxford meant she was put on the ‘top’ table. However, it was soon clear that she could not write as well as her older peers. When I went for parents evening, I was shown the evidence. She had been asked to make a sequence of four pictures from seed to flower and write four sentences describing how a plant grows. At 4 ½ years of age! I could see the panic on the page – letters rubbed out and crossed through, a few stabs at complete words, but with backward letters of different sizes and it was difficult to make out what she was trying to say. She’d been moved from the ‘top’ table and she absolutely understood that she was being demoted. By the end of the year, my bright enthusiastic girl was saying ‘I don’t like reading’ and ‘Mummy, I just can’t do writing.’ The teacher queried whether my daughter had some learning problems, but then conceded ‘we don’t actually know what she is capable of because she won’t try things.’ No wonder!

Of course this is just one story, but it helped me to understand some findings from the first phase of the SCALES project, which have been published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. We asked teachers to rate children’s language skills at the end of the Reception year. We took at cut at the bottom 10th centile, figuring that this would help us identify children at higher risk of having a language impairment. The problem was that 47% of children in the ‘high risk’ group were  born between May and August – if age group had no impact we’d expect 33% from the summer months. Summer born children were also more likely to have reported behaviour difficulties and were less likely to achieve a ‘Good Level of Development’ on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. To achieve a Good Level of Development, children need to meet or exceed all 12 targets in prime areas of personal, social and emotional development; physical development; and communication and language) and in the specific areas of mathematics and literacy. Take a look – these targets are pretty challenging for four year olds.

Indeed, across the population of more than 7000 children, only 57% achieved a Good Level of Development. I thought we must have made a mistake, but in fact the Government’s own report indicates that nationally, only 52% of children meet these targets. For children scoring in the bottom 10% of our language measure, fewer than 5% achieve these targets. Although age is a significant predictor of academic attainment, teacher ratings of children’s language skills were by far the strongest predicator of school success. What this suggests to me is that (a) the curriculum targets are developmentally inappropriate and (b) younger children in particular do not have sufficient oral language skills at school entry to meet curriculum demands.

The question then becomes ‘what should we do about it?’ In the paper we discuss different strategies, for example holding summer children back a year, raising the age of school entry for everyone, or adjusting measures like the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile to take account of age.  The first two have major cost implications – our nursery bill was more than the mortgage – so until we sort out affordable childcare, sending children to school at the age of four remains a necessity. Adjusting measures for age could help prevent the over-identification of younger children as having special educational needs, but it wouldn’t necessarily prevent the classroom practices my daughter experienced that exacerbate age-related disadvantages.

Instead, in the paper we suggest that the age at which children go to school doesn’t matter so much, as long as what we are asking them to do is within developmental reach. To this end, I think it would be beneficial to focus the reception year curriculum on developing oral language skills as a good foundation for learning, literacy and social development. A four year old should absolutely be able to tell you how a seed becomes a flower, but there is no need to be able to write about it!

Are all summer born children doomed by the education system? Of course not. The effect is small and many young children will catch up. But other studies have shown lingering effects of being the youngest at school entry, both in actual attainment and in the child’s own perceptions of their learning potential. My daughter is now in Year 2, loves school and is doing extremely well. But she is still reluctant to try something new just in case she won’t be able to master it immediately (a real problem for learning how to ride a bike). Her confidence has been knocked and she is cautious.

I gave a talk in Sweden awhile back (they of course think we are bonkers for sending our children to school at such a young age) and was asked to describe the perfect classroom. I don’t think I gave a good answer then, but now I know. At least in reception, school should be the most exciting place a child could be and a place where they repeatedly experience success. A curriculum that focuses on developing oral language and using language for learning, for social interaction and for regulating behaviour is one that will benefit all children in their first year of school, whatever their age.

Norbury, CF., Gooch, D., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E. and Pickles, A. (2015). Younger children experience lower levels of language competence and academic progress in the first year of school: evidence from a population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatryhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/jcpp.12431/

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