On the perils of being born in May or June

One of my favourite lessons I teach during Primary 7 involves getting children to use the NINIS website to complete a table illustrating the statistical profiles of differing neighbourhood communities in Belfast (in political parlance, wards). The subsequent comparative analysis thrashed out between teacher and pupils enables them to realize that, amongst other things, where you live and grow up can have a significant influence on your future life and career prospects. It’s also a great way of showing how little separates those across the walls, but that’s another story….

As a class teacher and school assessment co-ordinator, I have always been keen on identifying and seeking to tackle issues which inhibit the academic progress of children in schools. Issues ranging from attendance, strong discipline, parental support, effective teaching, a culture of expectation and accountability all contribute towards developing an effective learning environment which maximizes the potential for children to succeed.

British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, rather bluntly put his finger on the inconvenient fact of how socio-economic status and deprivation impacts directly on educational opportunities when he remarked about ‘rich, thick kids’ outperforming ‘poor, clever’ ones several years ago.

But one area which has interested me in recent years has been the issue of the relative performance of ‘young to year’ pupils when compared with the performance of their older class peers.

In our system, pupils born in July are the eldest in a given year cohort, with June children being the youngest. However, in England the eldest pupils in a year are born in September with the youngest being born in August. Research from England and elsewhere indicates that the month of birth of your child can have a fairly significant impact on their education prospects.

Below are some of the findings of a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) in Britain (2011)

  • August-born children are more than three times as likely to be “below average” as September-born children.
  • August children are also 20% less likely to attend a top university.
  • August children are between 2.5 and 3.5 times “more likely to be regarded as below average by their teachers in reading, writing and maths.”
  • August children are also 2.5 times more likely to be unhappy at school and at an increased risk of being bullied.
  • August children are 20% more likely to be in vocational rather than academic study after school.

The research followed on from an earlier study conducted by the IFS in 2007, which found that:

  • 60.7% of September-born girls and 50.3% of September-born boys achieved five GCSEs grade A* to C.
  • 55.2% of August-born girls and 44.2% of August-born boys did so.
  • The gap in attainment between pupils born in September and those born in August at the end of Key Stage 2 – the last year of primary school – is 14 percentage points.
  • The report also found evidence that teachers and parents were mistaking poor performance as a result of age for special educational needs.
  • August-born girls were 72% more likely than September-born girls to be recorded as having special educational needs.

On Thursday, Simon Doyle wrote a front page story in The Irish News revealing that research had indicated that younger pupils entering school in Primary 1 were statistically more likely to be referred to educational psychologists and to be diagnosed with sensory and physical problems.

The data was collated for the Assembly’s Education Committee by the five Education and Library Boards, using figures from 2006-2011. Whilst the monthly average of referrals to educational psychologists was 3,095, this figure rose significantly to 3,525 for children born in May and June.

Coincidentally, within my own school, I have been examining the composition of class learning groups throughout the school over the past two academic years, and this featured in an Irish News article the following day.

For those unfamiliar with typical classroom practice, the necessity of differentiated learning groups (tailored to meet differing needs of all pupils in the class) means that most classrooms will have at least three learning groups for numeracy and literacy, which can crudely be referred to as ‘top/middle/bottom’ or as ‘most advanced/middle/ least advanced’ learners (for purposes of convenience, I’ll go with the former henceforward.)

As every teacher will know, differentiation by task is essential to ensuring that pupils working at different levels are being introduced to new learning concepts at an appropriate rate, and much of the focus of school monitoring procedures and the ETI during inspection visits is on ensuring that differentiation by task is being effectively and appropriately planned and practised throughout every class in a school.

My own research findings proved consistent with the results from the international research, indicating that pupils born in the last quartile (April/ May/ June) were the most likely to predominate the ranks of the ‘bottom’ learning groups and were also the least likely to be in the respective ‘top’ learning groups when compared with the three remaining groups. Contrastingly, the eldest pupil cohort (July/ August/ September) were most likely to feature in the ‘top’ learning groups and least likely to feature in the ‘bottom’ learning groups.

Parents of children who have taken the transfer procedure (both in its current dual format and the old format) will probably be aware of the fact that such standardised tests factor in the pupil age in an effort to alleviate this situation, meaning that the younger pupils are allocated additional points. Indeed, this is the same for the statutory Computer Based Assessments (CBAs) introduced in primary schools last autumn as well as for the NfER assessments which are the most common assessment test in our primary schools.

Whilst some have argued that the evidence from the Assembly Education Committee report suggests a need to postpone the starting date for schooling, I’m not convinced this would alleviate the problems being thrown up precisely because there will always be pupils in a given year cohort who are up to 11 months and four weeks younger than others.

Like factors pertaining to socio-economic background, it is more the case that heightening awareness at appropriate levels and implementing practical measures (at school level) will prove more effective in addressing the problem. Of course since I’ve been preaching this message to friends and colleagues, quite a number have suggested this could effect parenthood planning…..

As an aside….on that theme, the US Census figures for 2006 revealed that more babies are born in summer months Stateside, with some experts suggesting the cooler, darker nights of late Autumn/ early Winter are conducive to ‘quality time’ in the bedroom, resulting in an August/ September boom. August proved the most popular month for births for 11 of the 17 years up to and including 2006, with July and September knocking August from its perch in a number of the remaining years.

Research also exists to suggest that professional sportsmen who are the oldest in their cohort tend to be more successful. From a BBC article on the subject:

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell noted there were more players in the Canadian national ice hockey league born in January, February and March than any other months.

He says this is because the cut-off for school hockey programmes is 1 Jan and the older pupils, who are physically bigger, tend to be streamed into the elite groups where they get better coaching.

He says you see the same pattern, to an even more extreme degree, in football in Europe and baseball in the US.

A 2005 study of Premiership stars by the Association of Football Statisticians found that out of 1,779 Englishmen to play in the top flight over the past 13 years, more than 40% were born in September, October or November.

Gareth Southgate is a September baby, Wayne Rooney was born in October, and Paul Scholes in November. But David Beckham was born in May.

A 2010 study in Australia analysed the birthdays of professional Australian Football League players and found a disproportionate number were born in the early months of the year. The Australian school year begins in January.