|R4U - Research for You
Some are born lucky; some are summer-born!
Ian Thompson, Visiting Professor, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire
In their 2007 report, When You Are Born Matters: The Impact of Date of Birth on Child Cognitive Outcomes in England, Crawford, Dearden, and Meghir investigate data obtained from a one-in-ten sample of children assessed nationally via the Foundation Stage Profile by the (then) Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). Further data from the outcomes of Key Stage test results for all children aged between seven and 16 was also explored.
The researchers take for granted the fact that date of birth has an impact on cognitive test scores, resulting in the youngest in each academic year performing worse on average than their older peers. Their interest is in unravelling the driving forces behind these differences in performance, leading to the addressing of the following research questions:
- what is the extent of the August birth penalty across different outcomes, and how does this vary by age (from age 5 to age 18)?
- which factors – absolute age, age of starting school, length of schooling – drive differences in cognitive outcomes between August- and September-born children?
- does the August birth penalty vary across particular subgroups of interest?
The researchers also hope to use their findings to recommend policy changes if the data suggest that such changes may well be needed.
A graph plotting ‘Foundation Stage Profile Standardised Score’ against ‘Date of Birth’ illustrates quite powerfully that the outcomes for August-born children are significantly lower than those for September-born children. Further graphs illustrate the fact that this gap exists (but decreases progressively) through the subsequent Key Stages, and still exists even at the end of compulsory schooling, leading the researchers to suggest that this effect might even influence children’s decisions as to whether or not to stay on at school after 16.
The authors calculate that August-born children are about 25% (girls: 26.4%; boys: 24.9%) less likely to reach the expected level in Key Stage 1 National Curriculum Tests than their September-born classmates. At Key Stage 2 this figure falls to 14% (girls: 14.4%; boys: 13.9%); at Key Stage 3 it is 9% (girls: 8.3%; boys: 9.1%); and at Key Stage 4 it is 6% (girls: 5.5%; boys: 6.1%). They suggest that reaching the expected level at KS4 is equivalent to achieving five GCSEs at grades A*-C, i.e. the requirement for subsequent study at many further education colleges. This means that August-born children are about 6% less likely to remain in education after 16 – all because of the month in which they happen to have been born. These strike me as particularly staggering statistics that describe a highly unacceptable situation!
The findings relating to Question 2, Which factors – absolute age, age of starting school, length of schooling – drive differences in cognitive outcomes between August- and September-born children? suggest (as might be expected) that ‘absolute age’ is the main reason for the gap, given that the August-born are nearly a year younger than their peers. Interestingly, although these children do benefit from starting school earlier (say, in September rather than January or April) this makes only a modest positive contribution to test scores.
The third question considers the effect of the birth penalty across different subgroups: free school meals students v. the non-free; students living in the 20% most deprived Super Output Areas v. those not; and three racial subgroups – students of Black Caribbean, Black, and Pakistani or Bangladesh ethnic origin – each compared separately with those of White British ethnic origin. The results suggest that there are some significant differences concerning the size of the birth penalty between those students eligible for school meals and those who are not. However, there are, interestingly, no significant differences between the other subgroups considered.
Policy change recommendations
The researchers suggest that:
One of the easiest and most effective solutions would be to explicitly recognise the age differences of students and accordingly age normalise Key Stage test results (including results used to generate school league tables…) (Crawford et al. 2007: 51).
They argue that no policy change can avoid the fact someone always has to be the youngest, but that it is important to ensure that being the youngest does not unnecessarily penalise the ‘unlucky’ individuals. The researchers do not mention the Foundation Stage Profile at this stage, but it is to be assumed that they would also make the same recommendation regarding the FSP results.
The Government’s Making Good Progress pilot has introduced some flexibility into the testing regime, allowing children to sit Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 tests in English and maths when they are ready, at either of two ‘testing windows’ proposed for each year rather than at a prescribed time as has happened to date. The authors make detailed suggestions as to how more flexibility might be incorporated by noting the exact age at which each child sits and passes the tests. The result of averaging the age at which all the children in a particular cohort passed the relevant test could then be used in school league tables.
A further suggestion involves changing the age at which free nursery education can be accessed. They argue that, provided that August-born children are able to benefit from extra nursery provision, they should be able to access this free provision from the beginning of the academic year in which they turn three.
The authors conclude the report with the following statement:
What is clear from this report is that there is a significant inequity that should be urgently addressed: August-born children are, on average, being penalised, simply because of an unlucky birth draw. This is not acceptable on either equity or efficiency grounds (Crawford et al. 2007: 62).
Crawford, C., Dearden, L. and Meghir, C. (2007) When You Are Born Matters: The Impact of Date of Birth on Child Cognitive Outcomes in England. London: Centre for the Economics of Education.