The shocking impact that being born in August has on students' education


Research discovers that summer-born children do worse in exams, are less likely to go to university, more likely to take risks such as smoking, and more likely to be labelled with SEN – all because of how we organise our school system. Pete Henshaw report

A child born in August is less likely to achieve five “good” GCSEs and more likely to be diagnosed with mild SEN when compared to a child born in September.

August-born children are also likely to have significantly lower confidence in their own abilities.

A study into the impact of being born at the end of the English academic year rather than the beginning has found a range of striking differences in achievement and educational experiences.

The headline finding in the report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies is that August-born children are 6.4 per cent less likely to achieve five GCSEs or equivalents at grades A* to C when compared to those born in September.

They are also two per cent less likely to go to university at 18 or 19, 2.3 per cent less likely to attend a Russell Group institution if they do, and one per cent less likely to graduate with a degree.

However, the report – When You Are Born Matters: Evidence for England – also finds that the impact of being August-born is wider than just academia.

Most notably, these children are 5.4 per cent more likely to be labelled as having mild SEN at age 11 when compared to a September-born child. Also, August-born children are more likely to:

• Exhibit “significantly poorer” socio-emotional development.

• Have “significantly lower” confidence in their own ability.

• Engage in risky behaviours such as underage smoking.

The report states: “These differences are largest soon after children start school and decrease as they get older (as the difference in relative age declines), but the gap remains educationally and statistically significant at the end of compulsory schooling, when young people are starting to make choices about further and higher education.”

The report also finds that while the effects are worst for August-born children, others are also hit. Those born in January are 2.8 per cent less likely to achieve five A* to C grades in GCSE or equivalents than September-born children, while for those born in May the difference is 4.4 per cent.

Children born later in the academic cycle usually start school aged up to a year younger than those born earlier in the year.

However, the study finds that rather than “not being ready” for school, the problems identified can be put down to the fact that these children are much younger when they are tested.

For example, an August-born child sits his or her tests aged 11 months younger than a September-born child. This fact also appears to explain the differences found in self-esteem, the study says.

The report calls for policy action to tackle the issue, arguing that the problems arise purely because of the organisation of the education system. It recommends adjusting children’s test scores according to when they were born and using these “age-adjusted” marks to stream pupils into ability groups, and for entry to further and higher education.

Alternatively, it also suggests allowing children to sit exams when they are “ready” – at a particular age rather than a particular date.

The report states: “Our view is that this policy ‘accident’ should not be allowed to affect negatively those born towards the end of the (arbitrarily defined) academic year. There is also a danger that some young people will drop out of school or not receive the support that they need while they are at school, simply because of the month in which they were born.”

Ellen Greaves, a research economist at IFS and one of the report’s authors, said: “Our findings point to a simple solution – age-adjusting the cut-offs required for pupils to achieve particular grades would ensure that no child is prevented from going on to further or higher education simply because of the month in which they were born.”

However, school leaders are sceptical about the proposal. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the most effective solution would be “targeted help and support”.

He explained: “This is what you would do for any other group that lags behind statistically, such as pupils on free school meals or White working class boys. Telling some children that they aren’t expected to perform as well as their peers will do nothing to raise their self-esteem, confidence or achievement in later life.”

Elsewhere, the study admits that the wider effects of month-of-birth are much harder to tackle because they are down to relative age in a cohort.

It explains: “At least some of the remaining difference in these outcomes is likely to be explained by differences in relative age. For example, children born in August may be more likely to start smoking at a younger age because they are the relatively youngest among a group of older peers.

“This is potentially the most challenging of the potential drivers (of month-of-birth differences) to deal with, as at least one child must always be the youngest in the class.”

The IFS calls for action to make schools, teachers and parents aware of the wider disadvantages that children born later in the academic year may face.

The report adds: “More could be done to document and share best practice in reducing inequalities between children born at the start and end of the academic year.”


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