Many moons ago, as a new teacher in my first school I was given various pieces of obvious and less obvious advice from experienced colleagues. “Don’t smile at your classes until Christmas” growled one long serving teacher. “Always keep two weeks ahead of your pupils with lesson preparation” suggested a conscientious colleague. “Just remember sometimes the best you can do is stop things getting worse” a pastoral line manager added. However, the advice that most caught my interest came from a Head of Department: “when you have children make sure they are born in the early autumn”.
At the time her advice seemed a little premature (I had yet to meet Mrs Dr Elliott) but I filed it away in the “will be useful one day” section of my mind. And so it proved.
Whilst politicians get very excited about how class, ethnicity, and school type influence educational attainment, less is said about the birthdate effect.
Educational studies from around the world consistently highlight birthdate as a significant control on educational performance. Put bluntly the youngest children in a year group are more likely to underachieve, and whilst the extent of any underachievement reduces with increasing age it is still significant even at university entrance levels. Although there is only a tiny average differential in ‘A’ level performance between the oldest and youngest students in a year group there is a larger difference at GCSE. Universities typically select candidates on the basis of both GCSE results and ‘A’ level predictions. Hence birthdate does affect university applications with those born in September 20% more likely to go to university than those born in August. Research into the ‘birthdate’ effect suggests that the average percentage disadvantage of an August born child (the youngest in the year group) compared to a September born child (the oldest in the year group) in expected attainment is as follows:
At Key Stage 1 25%
At Key Stage2 12%
At Key Stage 3 9%
At GCSE 6%
At ‘A’ level 1%
So why is there a birthdate effect? One suggestion is that depending on primary school start dates, some older students will have had more cumulative time in school than younger children in the same year group. A more significant reason is likely to be the intellectual maturity gap that exists between the oldest and youngest pupils in a year group. The oldest pupils sitting GCSEs (aged 16 years and 9 months) will be 5.5% older than the youngest pupils. This is a potentially significant development differential, and may well explain differing levels of achievement. If we add to this the cumulative effects of older pupils receiving lots of positive feedback for their educational performance from 4-16, and younger pupils receiving less because they don’t achieve at the same level due to less intellectual maturity, then you can start to see how older pupils enjoy a double advantage. It may also be that older pupils are more likely to be given extension activities whilst younger pupils work through standard exercises.
Good schools know about the birthdate effect, and make allowances for it in the teaching, assessment and support of pupils. They also know that for every general rule there are exceptions, and there are many summer born children who outperform their peers with autumn birthdays even at Key Stage 1. As ever with good teaching, whilst staff are aware of general age, gender or socio-economic influences on children, they adjust their teaching to meet the needs of individual pupils and do not teach stereotypes.
Some commentators argue that the birthdate effect should be given greater weight in educational thinking. There is a proposal that for public exams, performances should be judged and grades issued by birthdate bands. Thus for example autumn born children should just be compared with other autumn born children in the year group and not the whole cohort. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Analysis of the results from all of the GCSE examinations taken by over half a million candidates in the same academic year showed a consistent September to August month on month decline in the grades achieved.
Birthdate should certainly be a factor that schools and universities consider in their selection and teaching programmes. However, it is just one factor amongst many that could influence educational performance. The evidence also suggests that any birthdate effect is less marked amongst children who attend high performing schools. A good education can make up for a late birthday.