The Minister for Schools' proposal to allow parents of summer-born children to decide the age at which their child starts school has passed with little comment, but arguably represents one of the most radical policy shifts in years.
Last week, as hundreds of thousands of children in England started school for the first time, Schools Minister Nick Gibb wrote an open letter setting out the government’s intention to allow summer born children to start school at the age of five. The letter encourages schools and local authorities to move quickly to give parents this flexibility, ahead of proposed changes to the admissions code which would formalise the rights of parents of children born between 1 April and 31 August to decide whether their child should start school in the September after their fourth birthday, or the September after their fifth birthday. Crucially, for parents who decide to delay the start of school until their child turns five, it would enshrine the right of these parents for their child to start in Reception, rather than the current practice of having to start in Year 1 alongside children who have already been at school for a year. An equally important plank of the pledge is that children would be allowed to remain a year ‘behind’ into secondary school, and for the rest of their formal education.
The response, such as it has been, from both the education profession and the media has been broadly supportive. The gap in attainment between summer born children and those born in the autumn is well known. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report found that, relative to children born in September, children born in August are 6.4 percentage points less likely to achieve five GCSEs or equivalent at grades A*–C and are around two percentage points less likely to go to university at age 18 or 19. The proposals therefore provide a practical mechanism for addressing this gap, although some have argued that the proposals work round rather than address the bigger problem of the early age at which English children are introduced to a formal, academic curriculum.
So, good news then for summer-born children and their parents, but radical and innovative? Yes, in two key ways….
Firstly, this proposal appears to put parents in the driving seat as the people who know their children best, and can make the decision as to whether it is in their interests to start school at age 4 or age 5. This represents a huge shift in the dynamic between parents and schools in terms of supporting a child’s education. Schools often trumpet their relationship with parents, but as a mother, this can feel like little more than signing the home-school partnership agreement and then being expected to help enforce an increasingly byzantine set of uniform requirements. Whilst the schools within our RSA Family of Academies do rather better, in education as a whole work with parents can feel like something of an after-thought.
These proposals therefore represent a seismic shift in the relationship between parent and school. From the first contact with the school it would be the parents, rather than the school, who would hold sway as to when the child will start school. Leaving aside the logistical challenges this could cause for schools and admissions authorities - and these are not to be underestimated, but are perhaps for another day - this finally moves towards giving parents a role as equal partners in their child’s education. Having had a key role in deciding when their child starts school, parents are likely to continue to wish to be active participants in discussions and decisions about their child’s education as they move through the education system. Again, the challenges that this might bring to the culture in some schools will be substantial, but the potential to bring benefits to the child and the community by having a genuine partnership between schools and parents is enormous.
That’s pretty significant, but even so I am not convinced that the involvement of parents is the most radical aspect of these proposals.
You might wonder, given the largely positive reaction, why schools do not already allow parents the flexibility to delay their child’s start in Reception? After all, many schools and Reception teachers would really rather not have to adapt to the needs of very young children, who may not be fully toilet trained or able to use cutlery, quite apart from having the social skills to thrive in a Reception setting. I had anticipated that the reluctance was driven by concerns about league tables, and am grateful to the Summer Born campaign for advising that the DFE tables report on performance at the end of Key Stage 2, regardless of age.
Whatever the reasons for schools' reluctance to allow pupils to be taught with younger pupils, these proposals give a strong push towards grouping children more by stage than chronloogical age. The ramifications are huge, and go way beyond those for summer born children starting in Reception. They open up the possibility for schools and parents to look at all children in each year group – or certainly those with birthdays between April and August – and decide whether they are in the ‘correct’ year group or would benefit from repeating a year in order to stand a better chance of being ‘secondary ready’ by the time they leave primary school, be that aged 11 or 12. Secondary schools could be similarly encouraged to consider whether some pupils would benefit from a ‘foundation year’ in Year 7, before embarking on the formal secondary curriculum, or being able to study GCSEs over 3 years rather than 2, as some schools do now, but starting in Year 10 and continuing to Year 12.
If that new principle is established, then it surely will not be long before those in education and beyond question why this flexibility should apply only to children born between 1 April and 31 August. It seems obvious that other children, perhaps particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who start school on average 15 months behind their more advantaged peers in terms of language skills, should also have the option of delaying entry to Reception or having an additional year’s education at some point in their school career.
Suddenly educational performance moves from a zero-sum game where one pupil or school’s success can only come at the expense of another’s failure, to a system designed to get virtually every pupil to a particular point at the end of that phase of their education.
So, a revolution indeed, and almost unnoticed – one might almost wonder whether the Minister himself is aware of quite what he has started….
Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies. To find out more about our work visit the RSA Academies and RSA Academies Teaching School Alliance websites.