Summer-born pupils 'should have exam scores boosted'

Primary classroom All school tests should be marked on a sliding scale according to pupils age, says the study

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Summer-born children should have their exam marks boosted to compensate for being almost a year younger when they sit tests, a report argues.

In England, pupils born in August are less likely to get good GCSEs or go to university than those born in September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says.

Some may even drop out of school.

The age-adjusted scores should be used to calculate school league table positions, the authors argue.

The report draws on an array of official data, including the National Pupil Database, which contains details of every pupil in England.

Report co-author Lorraine Dearden said: "In a world where everything was fair we would expect the proportion of kids by month of birth who get the expected level at each age to be the same."

But the report finds this is not the case, with a significant gap even at GCSE level. More than 60% of September-born pupils achieve five A* to C grades, compared with less than 54% of those born in August.

Mild special needs

August-born students are also around two percentage points less likely to go to university when they leave school, one percentage point less likely to attend a leading university and one percentage point less likely to complete a degree.

Some 12.5% of August-born pupils are assessed as having mild special educational needs by age 11, compared with only 7.1% of those born in September.

"Our research shows that children who are relatively young in their year have lower self-confidence, lower belief in their academic ability, and are more likely to start smoking younger than their relatively older peers," said co-author Claire Crawford.

The authors argue that being 11 months younger than the oldest pupils in the year when they sit tests is the main driver of the differences in test scores.

It outweighs the effect of having had less time at school in areas where summer-born children start education later in the year.

The report says the solution is to "age-adjust" national achievement test scores, arguing that this "is a simple and straightforward way of ensuring that those born towards the end of the academic year are not disadvantaged by taking the tests younger".

The team analysed scores from the Key Stage 2 tests, which are taken by all pupils in their final year of primary school in England. Primary school league table positions depend on pupils achieving an expected standard.

Sliding scale

They found that August-born pupils scored on average seven points less than classmates born in September.

They conclude that pass marks should rise for September-born children by three points: "So the oldest children would have to perform slightly better than they do at the moment in order to reach the expected level, which would now be an expected level for a given age rather than at a particular point in time."

The marks would change on a sliding scale, with the pass mark for children born in October and November rising by two points; for January and December-born children by one mark; staying the same for February and March children; and reducing by one point for those with April or May birthdays, by two points for those born in June or July, and by three points for those born in August.

The authors recommend that similar age-adjusted scores be extended to other school tests, from assessments of six-year-olds' reading skills to the crucial exams taken by 16-year-olds.

Start Quote

If you started having different exam grades for children born in different months it would be extremely complicated. No one would understand it and there would be disputes”

End Quote Dame Sally Coates Academy headteacher

However, the authors acknowledge that the differences are most dramatic when children are first at school, and lessen as they grow older and the relative age gap reduces. There is no evidence that they persist into adulthood. So the exam results given to prospective employers should be absolute scores rather than age-adjusted, they concede.

'Intensive intervention'

Head teachers warned that tinkering with pass marks could have unintended consequences.

Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Telling summer-born children that they don't have to perform as well as their peers will do nothing to raise their self-esteem, confidence or achievement in later life.

"Employers need graduates who have reached a certain standard of education. Giving some students a grade which is adjusted downwards would lower their standard of achievement when it actually needs to be raised. This will have the opposite effect to what is intended."

Dame Sally Coates, head of Burlington Danes Academy in west London, told the Today programme on Radio 4 that she had not personally seen evidence of a birthday-related performance gap at secondary level.

She suggested that instead of tinkering with exams there should be "intensive intervention for younger children in early primary school".

Dame Sally said: "If you started having different exam grades for children born in different months, it would be extremely complicated. No one would understand it and there would be disputes."

Prof Rachel Brooks, of the University of Surrey, agreed early intervention could help prevent disparities in educational outcome.

She said: "The way in which pupils are grouped can have an effect - streaming tends to compound disadvantage, while summer-born children tend to do better within mixed-ability classes."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We trust teachers to put their pupils' results into context when discussing them with parents, particularly for young children where age can have a strong influence on the scores.

"In addition, we have changed the schools admissions code to make it easier for parents to defer their child's entry until they reach their fifth birthday."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    I'm another Augustian that breaks this trend (10A*/A GCSE, 5A Alevel). Fair enough to those calling us outliers to the data. But the problem is, a system like this is untenable. Unless the system stays simply as SpLDs being diagnosed + acted on [as was the case with me; dyspraxia], the cutoff is going to be unfair to somebody unless they apply a sliding scaling factor to all possible birthdays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    In my son's yr6 class there are 6 Aug born children all boys. 1 is going to grammar school in Sept. 4 are in the top groups and expected to get level 5's in the SATs. 1 is in the lower sets. The eldest child in the class is an Oct born and she is in the bottom set. I have 2 children one started school in Sept and one in January, they are both in the top sets. Their birthday has made no difference!

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    What a load of tosh!

    My daughter (born in August) is one of the cleverist in her class. My step-son (born in September) is lazy and has underperfromed throughout school.

    There are multiple extraneous variables that will influence a persons educational development.

    This is another example of the folly of generating sensationalist headlines from flawed 'research'

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    As parents we owe it to our children to have them properly prepared for when they start school. They should, in my opinion, know the alphabet, basic numbers, write their name and perhaps a few other words and if possible know how to read a few words as well. If your child is able to do that when they start school I believe they have the platform to progress very well irrespective of their age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    Reading these comments is very interesting and is a great example as to why our policies are rarely evidence-based (the squeaky wheel gets the oil). It is because when evidence tells us a) something we don't like or b) goes against our personal experiences - we cry foul. Science is there for a reason - don't just use it for smart phones and cars - it can actually help us make informed decisions

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    Stop meddling with the education system.

    Exam marking has already been reduced to such an extent that it allows for children who are 11 months younger than the eldest in the class.

    Children now get GCSEs who would not have obtained CSEs in my day. Their writing is illegible, their grammar, spelling and punctuation appalling and they can't add up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    The problem with this is that exams are the same in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but cut-off dates are different. Children born in July and August in Northern Ireland are the oldest in the year as the cut off is 30 June. If they are entered for GCSEs with an English board they will be doubly advantaged by being the oldest and getting extra points for their birth month.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    what a load of rubbish i was born in june i was one of the youngest in my school year and got some of the highest marks think i was 3rd highest over all, so no they dont need their exam marks boosted dont insult the child with this

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    No point in any educational reseearch any more, for two reasons:
    Everyone is an expert now, having been to school and/or having children at school - and extrapolating from my experience to what should happen for everyone else is SO obviously valid.
    The Minister for 'Education' already has immense knowledge and experience in this field, and in any case is surrounded by such EXCELLENT advisors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    Another August baby here - I don't recall it ever doing me any harm ... even taking into account the fact that the cutoff point changed after my first year so I went straght from Infants 1 to Infants 3, so I had less schooling to make up for the so-called gap.

    That said - if someone want's to bump up all my grades up a notch ... I wouldn't say no!

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Utter rubbish.
    If anything needs doing it is "summer children" starting school after their 5th birthday, not a year before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    I was youngest in my year at school, my birthday being early September - took all my O Levels at age 15 and was absolutely fine - agree this is a load of tosh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    What a load of ABSOLUTE twaddle! I was the youngest in my year, sat my GCSEs at 15 and passed all of them A-B. Then again I was lucky enough, to have teachers who could actually read and write properly, and who were allowed to focus on the basics. I've read school reports written by "teachers" RIDDLED with spelling mistakes, what's that all about hmmm?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    And what about the school high jump championships? There's a very strong statistical relationship between an individual's own height and the height of the bar over which they can jump. It's very well known that short people struggle in this event. Surely we must lower the bar for short people? Everybody should have an equal chance to become a 'Champion'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    The really depressing correlation is student performance v social grouping ACORN or MOSAIC. Ignoring ethnic group exceptions the performance of students is very strongly reflective of their background.

    Few state schools are resourced to offer all students the boost that top social groupings enjoy. FACT Many schools appear to suppress the boost rather than emulating it, they coast/narrow the gap

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    "But the report finds this is not the case, with a significant gap even at GCSE level. More than 60% of September-born pupils achieve five A* to C grades, compared with less than 54% of those born in August. "

    The author must have been born in August.
    It should read ".... compared with fewer than 54% of those born in August."

    Academics aren't what they used to be!

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    All of you who have astoundingly bright August children - the exception proves the rule and perhaps you should ask your clevert children to teach you a little about statistics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Is this the same IFS report as that reported by the Daily Telegraph's Education Editor Graeme Paton on 31st Oct 2011, or have they found extra funds to produce another report reaching the same conclusion as they did a couple of years ago?

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    My August-born son, after some early difficulties with writing, went on to achieve a Cambridge University doctorate. He certainly didn't need any help boosting his exam results. His secondary school targeted his writing problem at an early stage, realised his potential & worked with him to achieve it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Several studies describe this effect in the UK - I assume its statistically significant - but what is seen in other countries? Do they have policies in place that lessen the effect? In the UK the August/September dateline is very strictly enforced for example, and perhaps, if effects lessen as children get older, impact is exaggerated by the the fact children in the UK start school so early?


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