COMMONS

Education Committee web forum: School Starting Age

The Education Committee invites views on the strength of the evidence in relation to the current policy and on the international evidence on the relationship between school starting age and student achievement.

Thank you for all comments submitted to the ‘Evidence Check’ forum. The forum is now closed. Comments received will help the Committee evaluate the evidence received from the Department for Education.

The Committee will use the comments to select topics for one-off oral evidence sessions in early 2015.

Evidence

Please read the Department's evidence on school starting age:

Image: iStockphoto

64 Responses to School Starting Age

Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden and Ellen Greaves says:
December 15, 2014 at 09:50 AM
Comments on School Starting Age

Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden and Ellen Greaves, Institute for Fiscal Studies

We think that the evidence presented in the DfE document offers a balanced outline of what other countries do in terms of school starting age, but because there is typically no (or little) exogenous variation in age of starting schools within countries – it is almost impossible to find robust evidence on what the optimal school starting age is.
• To robustly test this question you need variation within England (or some other country) in school starting age for children of the same age. Moreover, this variation needs to be driven not by requests to defer or delay school entry by some parents, but by exogenous factors, e.g. a stated admissions policy or capacity constraints in terms of school places in certain areas.
• England actually has (or at least had) more variation in admissions policies than most other countries, because of the fact that admissions policies are set at local rather than national level. For example, while most children born in August start school in the September after they turn four, i.e. aged 4 years and one month, some also start school one, two or even three terms later (at the statutory school starting age) because of the admissions policy that is in place in their local authority.
• Our research compared the benefits of starting school at these different points in time. We found that it is marginally better if all children start school in the September after they turn four, rather than one, two or three terms later (and joining Year 1). For children starting school between these ages, the age of starting school does not appear to impact on later test results.
o This, however, does, not tell us whether it would be better to increase the overall age of starting school for the whole cohort. This is an almost impossible question to answer. International studies which compare the test results of children born in countries with very different admissions policies do not tend to find dramatic differences which could plausibly be associated with different school entry dates; but cross-country variation is not the ideal framework in which to make this assessment, as so much else differs across the education systems of different countries as well.
References to our work on the subject:
Crawford, Dearden & Greaves (2013a), When you are born matters: evidence for England, IFS Report No. 80 (http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/6686)

Crawford, Dearden & Greaves (2014), ‘The drivers of month of birth differences in children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills’, J. R. Statist. Soc. A 177, Part 4, pp. 829–860.

Crawford, Dearden & Greaves (2013c), Identifying the drivers of month of birth differences in educational attainment, IFS Working Paper No. 13/09 (http://www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp1309.pdf)

Crawford, Dearden & Meghir (2007), When you are born matters: the impact of date of birth on child cognitive outcomes in England, CEE Discussion Paper No. 93: http://cee.lse.ac.uk/cee%20dps/ceedp93.pdf

Josie Anderson Bliss says:
December 12, 2014 at 11:26 AM
Every year 60,000 children are born premature and 5,000 of these children will fall into the ‘wrong’ school year as they were born in the summer months, when their due date was after 31 August.

For children who have fallen into the wrong year because of their prematurity, developmentally they will be almost two years younger than the oldest of their peers, which significantly affects their ability to cope with all aspects of the school environment. For those that need it, allowing parents to have the flexibility to delay their child’s school start date until compulsory school age gives these children time to become ready for school. It isn’t always apparent how children who were born premature have been affected by their early birth until they reach school age; and allowing them the flexibility to start school at a time suited to them can improve their chances of succeeding throughout their school career.

Bliss have submitted a detailed response to the evidence used by the Department to determine the policy on summer born children, and we would like to invite the committee to look at this response for our analysis of why having flexibility which allows a child who was born premature to start reception at compulsory school age is so important.
Save Childhood Movement says:
December 12, 2014 at 10:36 AM
Over the past thirty years, successive governments have overseen an education policy which has moved towards an earlier and earlier start to formal instruction, and an erosion of learning through play. In September 2013, a letter signed by over 100 early childhood education experts published in the Daily Telegraph (2013, online) called for this policy to be reviewed. However the reply from the DFE proposed that such concerns were ‘misguided’ and that ‘earlier is better’, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds; an assertion that is entirely unsupported by the body of research. In fact, evidence from international comparisons and psychological research of young children’s development as learners indicates that a slow trajectory into formal education, with the early years period being spent in child-led play based learning produces better results. For example a PISA comparison of the literacy levels of children in their mid-teens in a variety of nations (PISA 2009) indicated that the children from nations where formal education begins at the age of seven show the most advanced literacy skills, and that those from nations where formal education begins at the age of six also out-perform British children.

Children in England currently are admitted into Reception classes in Primary schools in the September following their fourth birthday. This means that some of these children will be sitting at school desks only weeks after celebrating their fourth birthdays. The most common school starting age in Europe as a whole is six, with a minority (for example, Finland) having a school starting age of seven. The Scandinavian countries also tend to have a more relaxed transition into school from the early years environment (Bedard and Dhuey 2006).

Additionally, English early years education revolves around regular, detailed assessments of children’s skills. The national inspection body, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [OFSTED] closely scrutinises early years settings for the perceived ability to structure children’s moment-to-moment activities to inculcate ‘school readiness’, rather than to promote play-based/discovery learning opportunities with ‘open’ agendas.

A large body of evidence clearly indicates the crucial importance of child-led free play in young children’s development. The evidence is distributed widely across anthropological, neuroscientific, psychological and educational studies. Human infants are born at a very early stage in their neuronal development and subsequently need to build a vast number of neuronal connections.

This evidence, directly addressing the consequences of the introduction of early formal schooling, combined with the evidence on the positive impact of extended playful experiences, raises important and serious questions concerning the direction of travel of early childhood education policy currently in England. There is an equally substantial body of evidence, which there is not room to address here, concerning the worrying increase in stress and mental health problems among children in England and other countries where early childhood education is being ‘schoolified’ (Gray, 2011), and suggesting strong links with loss of playful experiences and increased achievement pressures. In the interests of children’s educational achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take this evidence seriously.

You can see this comment in full on our website http://www.toomuchtoosoon.org
Michelle says:
December 11, 2014 at 08:11 PM
PART 1
DfE paragraph 2 “Parents who feel their child is not ready to start school before the compulsory school age” Has the DfE even considered the fact that some parents just do not want their children to start school prior to Compulsory School Age and that they will not be starting school prior to this irrespective of ‘school readiness’?

“In addition, parents of summer-born children may request that their child is admitted to the reception class...” The DfE makes it sound like a simple request when it is not; parents of summer born children who wish their child to start in reception class AT Compulsory School Age have to endure an entirely separate and very different process to that of parents of children born at any other time of the year. Where is “normal age group”, defined in primary legislation? ‘Relevant age group’ is defined in primary legislation and summer born children starting school in reception class at Compulsory School Age fit perfectly within the legal meanings provided in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, since amended. I have commented on this further in the ‘Summer Born’ evidence check.

“These include clarification of the circumstances an admission authority should consider when making a decision on requests for children to be admitted outside their normal age group.” Some local authorities are setting up ‘panels’ to decided whether or not a child starting school at compulsory school age is entitled to enter what has always been an entry class to primary school. There is also disagreement and confusion between local authorities on what this actually means, as demonstrated in the local authority responses to the DfE’s consultation on the School Admissions Code -
http://summerbornchildren.org/2014/11/28/foi-by-summer-born-campaign-group-reveals-local-authority-disagreement-confusion-postcode-lottery/
Michelle says:
December 11, 2014 at 08:11 PM
PART 2
There is even disagreement between the Office of the Schools Adjudicator’s interpretation of the Code. The OSA believes that summer born children starting school in reception class is an 'exceptional provision' yet the DfE has advised parents that there does not need to be any special reason for a summer born child to enter Reception class rather than Year 1. These differing interpretations will lead no doubt lead to clashes and confusion for parents by the very body supposed to adjudicate on admission arrangements. All parties seem to be starting off on the wrong foot from the outset, because the Code is not clear. - http://summerbornchildren.org/2014/12/02/unclear-code/

A welcome addition to this Code is that these applications (IF granted) cannot now be put to 'the bottom of the pile' as some admission authorities were advising would happen and as determined by the Local Government Ombudsman as being the correct way to process these applications. -https://summerbornchildren.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/14-june-15-sbc-press-release-lgo-final-decision1.pdf

DfE paragraph 4 "Although attendance at school is compulsory from five years old, many children start school prior to this – for example there were 624,000 four year-olds in state-funded primary school in January 2014". School does not become compulsory, only education, and furthermore, compulsory age is not "from five years old". "..many children..." I suggest that this is not "many", but most children, as there is an expectation by admission authorities and schools that children must start school PRIOR to compulsory school age. Some schools do not even know what compulsory school age is; many schools have told parents that children MUST be in school age four.

DfE paragraph 5 "It was therefore in schools' interests to lower the starting age by creating reception classes" Schools did not create 'reception classes' in the 1980’s for four year olds, an extra year wasn’t squeezed into primary school life – it was more a case of follow of the child, follow the money. How the entry class has been termed may have changed, and differed from school to school, but schools did not create an extra year.
Michelle says:
December 11, 2014 at 08:10 PM
PART 3
DfE paragraph 8 “In the UK, 86% of three-year-olds and 67% of four-year-olds attend early education provision (a further 30% of four-year-olds attend primary education).” Education is a devolved issue, what are the figures for England? Where are these figures from? What is the DfE’s term of reference for ‘primary education’? Are they including ‘reception class’ and its equivalent in other areas of the UK in this definition?

DfE paragraph 6 – “...it must be noted that in some countries children are often admitted to school earlier than statutory age, as is the case in England.” In England, it is more than often, it is usual practice. It is very difficult for parents to be able to admit their children to school AT compulsory school age. For summer born children this can be extremely difficult without the child being made by admission authorities to skip reception entirely, with the burden of proof being on parents to prove there is something ‘wrong’ with their child (and often while the child is still only 3 years old) before being able to access a full education i.e. seven years of Primary School and five years of Secondary School. Even when a summer born child is given permission to be admitted to reception class AT compulsory school age, there is no procedural guarantee to ensure that these children are not forced by a school or admission authority to skip an entire year of school at some point further down the line. This does happen, and the DfE is aware of this.

As for the rest of the DfE’s evidence regarding School Starting Age and student achievement, there is a focus on pre-school (non-compulsory in England) attendance, which is not what was asked of them. Is this the DfE’s way of saying that early education is beneficial? Or perhaps that Year 1 is ‘technically’ the start of school (which is incorrect)? If so, why is it acceptable to them that a child can be forced to miss Reception class by an admissions authority?
Pauline says:
December 11, 2014 at 08:55 AM
PART 3:

Fundamentally, the strength of the DfE’s evidence, both here and in the Evidence Check for summer born children, is weakened by the fact that it is largely founded on an imprecise knowledge/awareness of CSAge and its flexibilities for ALL children. Even the DfE itself miscommunicates CSAge, as shown here – and also in SB ref.9, which says “demand for childcare would increase if parents had the option of delaying school start dates”.

IF?

Parents DO legally have this option. It’s the Code and the DfE’s statutory provision of part-time and Reception at CSAge ‘REQUESTS ONLY’ that is making it so hard for us to practicably exercise that option.

Now the CSAge cat is out of the bag, and there are increasing numbers of informed parents seeking greater flexibility all round, it would be prudent for DfE policy to consider whether a full education or a reduced one is best when summer born children enter school at CSAge, and to deliver a Reception curriculum which recognises that some, not all, (autumn, spring or summer born) children’s parents want to defer their entry to part way through the year or enrol them part-time. Otherwise, England’s true legal definition of compulsory school age will remain meaningless.
Pauline says:
December 11, 2014 at 05:56 AM
PART 3:

Fundamentally, the strength of the DfE’s evidence, both here and in the Evidence Check for summer born children, is weakened by the fact that it is largely founded on an imprecise knowledge/awareness of CSAge and its flexibilities for ALL children. Even the DfE itself miscommunicates CSAge, as shown here – and also in SB ref.9, which says “demand for childcare would increase if parents had the option of delaying school start dates”.

IF?

Parents DO legally have this option. It’s the Code and the DfE’s statutory provision of part-time and Reception at CSAge ‘REQUESTS ONLY’ that is making it so hard for us to practicably exercise that option.

Now the CSAge cat is out of the bag, and there are increasing numbers of informed parents seeking greater flexibility all round, it would be prudent for DfE policy to consider whether a full education or a reduced one is best when summer born children enter school at CSAge, and to deliver a Reception curriculum which recognises that some, not all, (autumn, spring or summer born) children’s parents want to defer their entry to part way through the year or enrol them part-time. Otherwise, England’s true legal definition of compulsory school age will remain meaningless.
Pauline says:
December 11, 2014 at 05:52 AM
PART 2:

4. Observed school starting age – "Although attendance at school is compulsory from five years old, many children start school prior to this".
There should be serious concern about the DfE’s observations here – in particular, its lack of accuracy in communicating primary legislation. Firstly, 'education' is compulsory but 'school' is not (note Qu.1 of SB ref.9 TNS-BMRB 2010 makes this same mistake). Secondly, CSAge is the 'term following a child’s 5th birthday'; it is not 'from 5 years old'. Finally, the word 'many' is a serious understatement; it should read 'majority of', 'nearly all' or 'most' since 99.9% of children enter Reception at age 4 (ref. DFERR023). The facts are glaring – CSAge legislation is blatantly ignored, as are parents' and children's legal rights.

Terminology is so important here. Parents are only 'delaying' in the context of a system that has forced children to start school EARLY for so long that waiting until CSAge is perceived as a 'delay'. Also, it is mistakes like these that result in the problems we see for all children, and especially SB children. The 2009 and 2010 School Admission Codes contained inaccurate definitions of 'Reception Class', leading admissions authorities (AAs) and school staff to believe that children could only be in Reception if they were turning 5 during that academic year. Not true. And in March 2013 I personally received a letter via my MP from then Education Secretary Michael Gove, which said, "All children must start school by the time they reach their fifth birthday". Not true. If even Mr. Gove can make this mistake, and in its own 'Evidence Check' to you, the DfE is still making CSAge errors, what hope do parents have when 'requesting' a CSAge start? All too often parents are more knowledgeable of primary legislation than councils, schools and the govt., but regardless, the power ultimately lies with AAs, and the DfE refuses to act on promises to parents (e.g. Laws 2014).

5. "a number of possible reasons".
One reason is insidious blackmail forcing early entry; school start at age 4 is often an implied condition of securing a place in a preferred school (e.g. threat of Year 1 entry at CSAge with no right of appeal or being arbitrarily 'returned' to 'correct' year group in the future (this happens); and risk of no school place at all if Year 1 is full). Parents are frequently told that part-time and deferred entry is not permissible; head teachers will even openly cite funding as a reason for not allowing a January school start (bec. head count occurs in autumn) or express concern about tests and results (e.g. EYFSP and phonics) if children miss too much of the curriculum.

Re: "creating reception classes".
It’s important to note that Infant 1 of primary school was renamed 'Reception'; an extra school year was
not 'added', and I mention this because sometimes Year 1 is referred to as 'technically' the start of school when Reception is the normal entry class to primary school. Where is the evidence that missing this "critical" (DfE's word) year and entering Year 1 is in children's best interests? The argument goes that 'for some children this may not be appropriate or in the best interests of the child', but where is the evidence? U.S. research on delay versus retaining in schools where children start school at age 6 and where high quality pre-school is still largely a luxury afforded by the rich is not a relevant comparison. What about Canada, Scotland, Denmark and Australia? School start flexibility exists with full parental choice, but this approach is not fully explored – and separately to subsequent relative age effects, which will likely always persist to some extent in any 'age group' system.

6. Again, "age 5" is not England’s statutory school starting age. The DfE has a duty and responsibility to ensure greater accuracy on this point. The Code should reflect primary legislation, yet the DfE itself repeatedly miscommunicates this most basic fact.

Re: "in some countries children are often admitted to school earlier than statutory age, as is the case in England".
It would be interesting to know what percentage of children in these countries are admitted earlier than CSAge (in comparison to our rate of 99.9%), and how many are age 4 (sometimes even age 3)? Country comparison evidence in the 1998 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary "Too Much Too Young" demonstrates how gender and relative age gaps are exacerbated by both our early starting age and early formal education.

7. Given that we know almost all children starting school in England are 4 and not 5, this drastically sets us apart from the other 213 countries.

8. These examples only further emphasise how far apart we are from other countries – though I wonder whether the 30% figure cited here for 4 year-olds may refer to UK-wide rather than English data?
Pauline says:
December 11, 2014 at 05:48 AM
PART 1:

Principally the Committee should be concerned that in its evidence on SSA, the DfE has itself incorrectly cited compulsory school age (CSAge) twice. This is a huge red flag.

Re: 2. “rather than year one (their normal age group)”.

Primary legislation does not refer to ‘normal age group’ and it appears this phrase has been adopted largely because it’s now ‘the norm’ for children in England to start school at age 4. The system has encouraged (forced) an age 4 start to such an extent that an age 5 start is not considered ‘normal’ – or even permissible – by many (see January 2014 report: http://summerbornchildren.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/14-jan-15-summer-born-report-csa-lowered-to-4-through-unfair-and-unlawful-sb-admissions-process.pdf)
Ministers describe SB children joining their ‘peers’ who are moving into Year 1, when other children entering Reception (anywhere between 1 day and 5 months younger) are just as much their peer group. According to legal definitions of CSAge and Reception, a 5 year-old SB child in Reception is perfectly normal.

Ironically, the DfE is using 2.17 of the Code to cover all SB admissions (even though it doesn’t provide the same right of appeal as all other first entry applicants have); it says children who have ‘missed part of a year’ can seek places outside their ‘normal’ year group. But ALL CSAge SB applicants are not yet ‘in’ a year group, and if placed in Year 1, will miss a WHOLE year of school, not just part, despite Australian research (Zubrick 2014) finding there’s “no safe level of missing school” because of “negative consequences for a student’s academic achievement…”.

Re: “can request that their child attends part-time”.
The DfE’s own evidence demonstrates that merely giving parents the right to ‘request’ this is inadequate and has led to forced full-time attendance against their wishes. Ref.5 (DFERR023) shows just 0.4% (2,490) of all 4 year-olds in primary school (Table 1a) and 0.44% (2,750) of all children in Reception class (Table 1d) are part-time, and contrasts with parents’ preferences in the (SB ref.9) TNS-BMRB 2010 survey. There is a HUGE difference between what parents want and what actually happens. Even anecdotally, I know of 4 children in ONE class alone whose parents enquired about part-time and/or deferral but were told full-time at age 4 was expected.

Re: 3. “clarification of the circumstances”.
This stipulation has already led to increased administrative workloads (some councils employing specialist ‘medical panels’ and sending educational psychologists out to parents’ home in order to assess whether their 3 year-old ‘needs’ to wait until CSAge), plus increased parental correspondence to the DfE; and it will only get worse once more parents in England become aware of true CSAge (notably - even many teachers, head teachers, pre-school and LEA staff have believed up until recently that it was ‘by the age of 5’ or ‘in the term/year the child is 5’, and many parents and pre-schools still don’t realise EYE funding continues up until CSAge).

There is no ‘clarity’ in the Code, since at the core of each person’s request, the ‘circumstances’ are exactly the same (it’s responses to requests that are vastly different): parents want their child to start school at CSAge and experience a full education beginning in Reception, with no fear of repercussions (e.g. skipped year) later on. A SB child is a SB child (though the DfE’s July 2013 advice added a further layer of obfuscation by stating that most requests will likely come from parents of children born later in the summer). Weighting should not be given to one birth date over another, ‘exceptional circumstances’, gathering of medical, educational, psychological or any other ‘evidence’ should not be required. These are parents who do not wish to apply for a school place (when their child is 3) to begin school age 4, or to have their application disadvantaged, or be penalised later on– by waiting until lawful CSAge. Finally, if the Code was sufficiently clear, the DfE wouldn’t differ in opinion to the OSA (which views 5 year-old SBs in Reception as ‘exceptional provision’ only) and the LGO (which viewed discriminatory SB admissions practices as acceptable: https://summerbornchildren.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/14-june-15-sbc-press-release-lgo-final-decision1.pdf), and it wouldn’t need to keep producing additional explanatory non-statutory advice (that no one has to adhere to anyway).