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.
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.
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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