Guest post: Summer Born – Why the unfair and unpredictable postcode lottery needs to end

Pauline Hull – co-lead of the Summer Born Campaign and editor of summerbornchildren.org – discusses recent developments around the legal position for parents of summer born children and why the current situation needs to change. 

Pauline Hull

Pauline Hull

As parents, we all make different choices about all aspects of our children’s lives,  and deciding when – or even if – to send our children to school is just one of the many choices we all make. And while we will certainly not all agree on the choices we make, or our individual reasons for making them, I hope most readers can agree that the legal ‘right’ to make our school entry choice – without penalty – should be equal and fair. 

Unfortunately, the current admissions system for summer born children is not fair, and in fact because of ambiguity and loopholes within the School Admissions Code, fair access to a full 12 year education is now a complete postcode lottery in England.

Up until very recently, and despite parents in England having the absolute legal right to wait until their child reaches compulsory school age (CSAge; the term following a child’s 5th birthday) before commencing their child’s education, the majority of parents unquestioningly (though often under pressure) enrolled their children in Reception class at the age of 4.

But as more parents of summer born children began requesting Reception class entry at CSAge (i.e. in the following academic year to the one they ‘could’ choose), and especially after the 2014 Code specified this option as never before, an unprecedented number of complaints about the whole process ensued. 

Indeed, increasing numbers of shocking accounts of unfair practice emerged, largely through communication with the Summer Born Campaign group, describing how some admission authorities:

  • place summer born primary school applications to the bottom of the pile, to be processed after all 4 year-olds are allocated places
  • only offer Year 1 (instead of Reception class) entry in ‘any’ school with available places
  • agree Reception class entry but with the proviso that the child must skip a year later on in primary or secondary school – and enter their ‘correct chronological age’ year group
  • agree Reception class entry but when a new headteacher arrives (or if the family moves house to another area) the child is made to skip a year of school 
  • threaten loss of access to Grammar schools in their area unless the child ‘returns’ to their correct year group prior to or after entry
  • encourage headteachers not to agree to Reception class entry at CSAge or defy local authority views in cases where the local authority is supportive but the school, as its own admission authority, isn’t
  • force children of returning expats (or military parents), who started school at age 5, to skip a school year and enter the year group they’d be in had they started at age 4

There are also cases of pre-schools and nurseries advising parents that a 4 year-old summer born child cannot be accommodated in their setting during the year prior to CSAge because they only take 3 year-olds and would expect all children to start school at age 4.  Some also advise that statutory funding ends in the year a child turns 4, which is not true. Parents are entitled to 15 hours of free early education or childcare per week up until their child reaches CSAge or enters Reception class in a state school. Moreover, the government plans to increase this entitlement to 30 hours per week for working parents (possibly as soon as 2016 for some), which addresses fears that not all parents can afford to choose CSAge entry to school.

Many parents, understandably fearful of the above threatened (and actual) repercussions, succumb to the pressure of age 4 entry; some perhaps arranging deferred or part-time entry instead, with others feeling forced to accept what seems the lesser of two evils. Some parents decide to home educate if they are able to, and others pay (or arrange costly loans) for private school fees – most often because they do not want their 4 year-old children learning to read and write before they are ready, and because they certainly don’t want their 5 year-old children bypassing the critical play-based learning foundation that is Reception class, and entering Year 1.

But the good news is that last week Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced his government is going to make changes to admission rules, and he wants admission authorities to take immediate action ahead of these changes. The aim is clear; to ensure that admission authorities “admit summer-born children to reception class at the age of 5, if their parents want this [and to] make sure the children can stay in this year group as they progress through school”Some admission authorities, Liverpool City Council for example, have already agreed to this, and the National Governors Association has encouraged its members to do this too.

Inevitably, not everyone agrees with this move, and undoubtedly there are other criticisms of our education system and all manner of other ideas about how better to address the relative age effect, but many of these approaches would require a change to England’s primary legislation. What the Summer Born Campaign has always focused on – regardless of prematurity or any other clinical reason for a child’s developmental delay – is the Code’s responsibility to ensure a ‘clear, fair and objective’ admissions process for ALL (i.e. no postcode lottery), alongside indisputable CSAge legislation and a legal definition of Reception class that supports flexible entry whether people agree with it or not; plus admission authorities’ lawful responsibility to make decisions based on the best interests of a child (as opposed to “bureaucratic neatness”). 

We have maintained for years that there is no evidence to support forcing children to miss any year of their education (just the opposite in fact), yet the evidence demonstrating disproportionately worse academic, social and emotional outcomes for ‘some’ summer born children is overwhelming. And this last point is key – not all summer born children struggle or are disadvantaged, and not all parents will choose to wait to enrol their child at CSAge – there are countless anecdotal summer born success stories that support the practice of flexibility and choice. 

Could the government’s proposed changes make our education system perfect? No, but as outlined here, they will make things much fairer than they are right now. Could they improve the outcomes of many summer born children? Yes, we believe so, and it’s a system that works very well in other countries too. 

Furthermore, and only if the Schools Minister ensures these changes are mandatory in the new Code, it will remove the need for costly admissions ‘decision-making panels’, reduce complaints, see fewer summer born children diagnosed with SEN, create classrooms where more of the children are developmentally ready to access the curriculum, and produce better long-term academic attainment, of which there is a positive economic impact too. 

Change is often feared (better the devil we know; ‘someone’ has to be the youngest; a 17 month chronological age gap is unmanageable), and choice is often false, but the law is the law – and considering CSAge, ‘reception class’, ‘parents’ wishes’ and ‘best interests’ legislation (not to mention the DfE’s policy on absenteeism penalties), a lottery in which some summer born children, but not all, must miss a whole year of school – if they start their education ‘on time’ instead of early – is indefensible, illogical and unsustainable.

 

Learn more from the Summer Born Campaign at their website  and Facebook group or follow on Twitter @sb_campaign

 

Your reactions and feedback to the observations and arguments laid out here by Pauline Hull?

Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…

 

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Comments

  1. sjmccormick76

    SchoolsImprove It absolutely needs to end. There needs to be clear, unambiguous, mandatory requirements with the SAC for #summerborn

  2. sjmccormick76

    Perfectly put, as always.
    This isn’t about making all #summerborns start school at csa.This is about ensuring there is a fair choice for all parents. It shouldn’t matter where you live, the admission of summer-born children should be covered by strict legislation to ensure that that individual child, no matter where they happen to live in the country, has the right to start school in reception at csa. By making it an automatic right, it takes away any subjectivity or dependence on ‘interpreting the guidance’ in unlawful ways.
    Hopefully the schools and local authorities will start to see this is going to happen and become much more open to the idea now, before the legislation is passed. No child should miss a year of education and the fact that the Minister for Schools has urged for immediate action makes it even more scandalous if any other does, from this point forward!

  3. rebecca_symonds

    SchoolsImprove we only want what is fair & equal & legal & the thing, everyone seems to forget, what is BEST 4 R kids. Only mums know that

  4. LLJones42

    Great article. I find it bizarre that some education authorities (talking about Kent from my personal experienced) are fundamentally opposed to allowing a deferral. Even when the parents, nursery, paediatrician have expressed clearly that the child is not ready they would rather waste time and money putting in one on one support rather than allowing the child to develop at their own rate for a year then thrive in class live everyone else.

  5. LoveScienceHQ

    sjmccormick76 SchoolsImprove The right to defer without missing a year is regularly used in Scotland so there is an effective model.

  6. LoveScienceHQ

    sjmccormick76 SchoolsImprove I’ve had kids in both systems,up there,it’s part of the conversation you have at nursery. No push either way

  7. Maggie

    The post code lottery absolutely needs to end! There are a lot of families still waiting/fighting for their children who are just too young to start school! Why do some councils already accept start in the reception at CSA whereas others deny to do this?? How is this possible?

  8. penterpad

    SchoolsImprove absolutely” some are ready at 4, mine isn’t. Just shocking that he could be penalised by missing entire year.

  9. penterpad

    SchoolsImprove sb_campaign illogical indeed. But still children are being denied a full education just because they aren’t ready at 4

  10. MerciaSmith

    These changes are desperately needed so that all children can begin in Reception if that is the parents choice. It also needs to be a fair system that isn’t dependent on postcode. We live in Kent who have a strong opposition to deferring. Councils like ours mean the changes need to be watertight to protect parents and most importantly the children involved.

  11. Lucybarton

    I totally agree as its our children’s legal right to start school at CSAge they should be automatically entitled to a full education.  Which despite Nick Gibbs open letter remains a postcode lottery with Admission Authorities totally ignoring and disregarding him.  These children are the countries future, the people who will be paying future taxes, paying for our old people’s homes. Why are Admission Authorities determined they must start early or miss a year of education?  We fought and boy did we fight for our CSAge daughter to start in reception this year. Absolutely the right decision but I am fearful for her as we have to reapply for her “delay” every time we move schools.  In effect removing our right to move house or change her school if she doesn’t settle or is bullied and what about year 7 if we do not manage an effective changeover to secondary school?  Maybe she can miss her SATS and go a year early or should I say with her cohort, that will put the cat amongst the pigeons for the LEA and ofsted.  Our other August born has severe speech delay our LEA is ignoring Nick Gibb so what if we cannot start her in Reception at CSAge.  Its hard to learn to communicate with the teacher, read, write and add up when your speech fails you.  We are desperately awaiting the outcome of the new code, but with no timescales provided we get more disheartened everyday but when it does come and we hope it comes in time for us the wording must be perfect and it must make it unequivocably clear that its parental choice, not the choice of the Admission Authorities who only want beaurocratic neatness and not the best interests of our children or their future.

  12. RachelBurnell

    Having jumped through hoops and been lucky to get a CSA start for my late august born daughter unto reception this situation now needs fully resolving so there is never any risk of her missing/ skipping a years education in years to come. State education is 12 yrs in this country (7 primary inclusive of reception, 5 secondary) and legal school starting age is 5 years old- its long over due that these things are aligned for children who are not ready to start school at just turned 4 yrs. I welcome the postcode lottery and future uncertainty that exists currently finally being resolved.

  13. jennydbuk

    What a wonderful article. So well put! I think I am going to send a copy, along with a copy of Schools Minister Nick Gibbs open letter, to my Local Authority (Essex) when I contact them again about a Reception start at CSAge. I hope they take a leaf out of Liverpool’s page and follow the excellent example they have set!

  14. kellybathie1

    SchoolsImprove children should have automatic right to reception place at CSage. LA had agreed other families but not our son with SEN!!

  15. RosieDutton

    I think the key is in the headline of this article, a ‘lottery in which ‘some’ children must miss a whole year of school. Some? Why should some children be forced to miss a year of school for purely starting at compulsory school age when others aren’t. Children have automatic access to reception at CSAge in Liverpool for example. Many admission authorities agree requests. Many don’t. I whole heartedly welcome the proposed changes. How can this go on? Where you live should not determine your right to a full education and no child should be penalised for starting school at compulsory school age.

  16. andreaasbury

    My husband and I spent around 1 year battling for the right to enrol our son in Reception class at compulsory school age. He simply wasn’t ready for school just weeks after his 4th birthday and would have struggled. We got there in the end and he has just started reception ready to grasp all the wonderful opportunities offered – in short he’s ready to thrive. Our discussions with the school, local authority and the DFE were confusing, stressful and protracted and we were ‘threatened’ with our son needing to miss a year at some point to ‘catch up’ with his chronological age cohort. Changes really need to be made so ALL children can enjoy a full education, beginning in Reception class when they are ready (either 4 or 5). Families can then make an informed decision in their childrens’ best interests.

  17. Natalie

    We live in West Sussex where they made a decision on which year group my son will start at CSA without having any form of application from us! They have not taken out views into consideration nor the views and oppinions of our prospective head teacher! They told us they had a meeting to discuss our child and they have decided our son will miss reception and go strait to year one! We have applied for reception in Hampshire where they have agreed to a reception space at CSA. Very annoying as we may not get a Hampshire space and if we do, we will have to drive passed our preferred school each day!

  18. Ali_Critchley

    RDut24 not sure if you read my blog? I’m not arguing for status quo – in fact the opposite. Want to see more flexibility.

  19. RDut24

    Ali_Critchley Yeah I read your blog. Agree, it’s supportive but don’t understand tweets saying its ‘radical’ and could have ‘implications’?

  20. Ali_Critchley

    RDut24 not sure I can say it better in 140 than full blog, but will try! Recognising parents as equal partners in education is a big change

  21. HelenC

    Great article. Access to YR at CSA should be an automatic right for those who want/need it. It should not depend on where you live and the often biased opinions of individuals working in school admissions departments and/or headteachers. Parents are responsible for their children, they know them best and they are best placed to decide whether they should be starting school in reception at 4 or at CSA. I welcome Nick Gibb’s decision to amend the admissions code and I really hope it will be in force in time for my late August 2012 born daughter to ensure that she does not have to miss a year of schooling when she starts school at CSA in 2017.

  22. annatreth

    RDut24 you’re right – there are remarkable inconsistencies out there. What LucyMPowell was saying (I think) was that whilst holding back..

  23. annatreth

    RDut24 LucyMPowell.. Summer born kids from formal education can be right some children benefit from excellent early years provision sooner

  24. annatreth

    RDut24 LucyMPowell particularly disadvantaged kids who may not have a rich experience at home and therefore start school behind peers

  25. finbir

    annatreth RDut24 LucyMPowell it is not “holding back” it is starting children ‘on time’ at compulsory school age, age 5, not 4

  26. annatreth

    RDut24 LucyMPowell same as govt proxy – eligible for FSM. A crude measure that shld be refined bt what they use currently

  27. Yetou

    annatreth mine are on fsm but I’m still fighting for Rec start at CSA as I know it is better for them don’t tar us all with the same brush.

  28. JulieEThomson

    Yetou annatreth mine get FSM but still have a rich home life & our #summerborn started CSA. Current policy is what makes it harder.

  29. JulieEThomson

    annatreth RDut24 LucyMPowell surely best to allow all families to make an informed choice about when their child starts school 1/2

  30. JulieEThomson

    annatreth RDut24 LucyMPowell than continue with ‘early intervention’ policies which undermine their confidence as parents.

  31. sjmccormick76

    JulieEThomson Yetou annatreth My son also eligible for FSM; I’m fighting for my younger #summerborn. And trust me, it’s a fight!

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