At age two, my August-born son is already being marked out for failure

Given his birth date, the nursery won’t even interview him. Thank God the school-start rules are changing for summer-born children

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

In six months’ time, my son is due to attend an assessment day for a nursery. The details on the nursery’s website are deliberately sketchy — presumably to avoid parents coaching their children — but it seems to involve my son being observed while he plays and graded on the results of his burbling: it sounds very much like an interview. He is going to be two and a half.

It is easy to be satirical about a child going for an interview at the age of two and a half — his PowerPoint skills are not up to it; we haven’t arranged a single internship for him; he doesn’t have any particularly insightful questions to ask. But my wife and I thought we had better put him forward for it. We don’t particularly care about this nursery — I can’t imagine the quality of the crayons varies much between different providers — but it is the feeder to a prep school which is the feeder to a high school which has some of the best A-level results in north London. We got the impression that this interview would decide his entire future.

Parents become students in this. In north London — the world centre of competitive parenting — there are seminars for new parents and parents-to-be about navigating the English school system. An American friend of mine went to one, and was commended for being ahead of the curve because she was the only one there who was not visibly pregnant. When she admitted that the reason she wasn’t visibly pregnant was because she’d already had her baby, and she was 15 months old, the other parents gasped and ignored her for the rest of the seminar.

Last week, we returned to London from holiday. Waiting for us on the mat was a letter saying that, ‘with regret’, our son had been rejected at the pre-interview stage. The main factor in the rejection, according to the letter, was ‘the position of each child’s birthday in the year’. Our son was born in August.

Now, I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell, and I know that babies born at the end of the academic year are unlikely to become professional sportsmen. In the English football leagues, the number of professional footballers born between September and December is more than twice the number born between June and August. The advantage that children receive from being the oldest, biggest and strongest in their school year — and consequently being the ones who receive encouragement, confidence and coaching — carries on into later life.

I have also noticed, from the number of birthday parties during the Edinburgh Festival, that a disproportionate number of comedians have birthdays in August — almost as if comedians would tend to be drawn from the smallest, weakest and neediest children in any year.

But I had not appreciated the difference birth date makes to academic prospects. In some studies, the difference between a boy born in August and a girl born in September can amount to an average of one grade in each subject at GCSE. (The relative age effect is less marked at A-level, but only because a higher proportion of August-born children drop out before the sixth form. Thirty-five per cent of September-born GCSE students go on to do A-levels, but only 30 per cent of those born in August.) My son was being rejected to safeguard the school’s position in the league tables in 2029.

This week comes the news that the rules might change to allow ‘summer-born’ children to delay their education — and hooray for that, I say. As it was, I immediately felt nostalgic for the days when you had to wait until the 11-plus before being branded a failure for life. When education was streamed at a national level, the gap between state and private education was smaller; as the gap gets wider, there is a greater clamour for private education, and schools can, like actuaries calculating death risk, eliminate any chance of mistakenly admitting toddlers who interview well but are, due to an accident of birth, losers. And although the 11-plus may have been inaccurate and unfair and biased towards middle-class children, it was at least based on something more than statistical probability.

The letter talked about the inevitability of ‘a high level of disappointment’ but expressed hope that our son would eventually find ‘another suitable school’ — as if rejection would prove so dispiriting that we might forget about educating him entirely.

I had thought it was a myth that schools rejected August babies as a matter of course — until I received a letter telling me so. I was foolish for being sarcastic about my son having an interview at the age of two and a half, and about the parents who mocked my friend for waiting until her child was born before thinking of schools; we had marked our son out for failure when we conceived him in November instead of waiting until December.

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  • rtj1211

    The solution is for someone to start a Free School network with the school year running from January (or February so people can have cheap ski holidays in January), taking GCSEs/A Levels in the Autumn and then allowing school leavers to apply to University with grades in the bag and the chance for 6 months work experience/charity volunteering etc etc before college. Much easier to get children to swot for exams if it’s raining, cold and dark outside, isn’t it?!

    All this nonsense about starting school in September is just an administrative relic of the centralised ‘bog standard comprehensive’ ideology. Exams take place twice a year (to allow re-sits), so use the alternative dates to organise an alternative school year. As long as you have some holidays at cheap times, parents will love you for it.

    • Shorne

      It’s got nothing to do with “centralised ‘bog standard comprehensive’ ideology.” quite the opposite in fact. They needed children to be free during the summer to help during the harvests. If the school year started in January, they would have to have a six-week holiday in the middle of the school year, but the holiday needed to be at the end of the academic year.
      As I probably belong to the last generation (b.1950) that did help with the harvest during the holidays I think things could be changed now.

      • red2black

        It’s always puzzled me why, in that song, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot claims he was flying high in April and shot down in May, even though everyone knows it was August and September.

        • Shorne

          This may be my fault but I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about.

          • red2black

            That’s Life.

        • Mary Ann

          Perhaps July didn’t rhyme as well as April and May.

          • red2black

            High and Fly do, among many others. A hit song at the expense of historical accuracy, and even worse, sung by an American; the late, great, Mr Frank Sinatra.

      • Mary Ann

        Why change it, September is a good as time as any, and the long holiday in the summer is nice.

        • Alexsandr

          why not have alternative school years. a different school year wouold help kids born jul -oct who are either too old or too young for the current system.

    • red2black

      Then you’d have December babies rather than August babies.

      • Alexsandr

        so send your kid to a traditional school year school.

  • Jingleballix

    ……….yes……….by his father.

  • AQ42

    I wouldn’t worry too much. Our late August born has just aced her Year 6 primary school SATs and is in top sets for English and Maths at her new High School. Though I suppose we are outside the London hothouse, and if she had had a year more she could have been even higher!

    • Mary Ann

      Or bored.

    • J Smith

      And? Anecdotes are not meaningful and do not trump the data.
      August children entering at five average worse academically and in sports than those entering school a year later — and those results persist.
      Nor does it explain why teachers and psychologists are among the most likely to hold their August born children back one year.

  • Don Rushforth

    No problem – our granddaughter was born in August and is at Oxford after attending a local comp. What does worry me however is that he has to attend an assessment centre for nursery. Sounds like one of those middle class things, or something ‘overheard in Waitrose’.

    • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

      Your granddaughter is a he?

      • Shorne

        I read this as referring to the ‘son’ in the article’s title.

    • J Smith

      Your anecdote does not trump the data.
      August children entering at five average worse academically and in sports than those entering school a year later — and those results persist.
      Nor does it explain why teachers and psychologists are among the most likely to hold their August born children back one year.

  • Barry & Yvonne St-Hargreaves

    My son…..my son……my son….it is all about me.

    • Tamerlane

      You’re acting out again Yvonne/Barry.

    • Dominic Stockford

      You would prefer them not to be interested in their son, or to not use the example of their son to demonstrate what is an issue for some?

  • Brigantian

    The article only serves to prove that we are going backwards in terms of education, not forward. Back in the 1960’s children began school in many areas in the term before their 5th birthday. This meant they were assessed at the same stage of development. By the time August babies started, many born in September had already been graded subnormal and allocated to special schools.

  • Dominic Stockford

    Number 1: It is desperately sad that parents have now been made to think (in the main) that sending their child off to nursery for the day at ages below 5, instead of looking after them themsleves, is a ‘good thing’.
    Number 2: It is sad that the government has forced schools to ‘educate’ children so young that they should still be with their parents.
    Number 3: I was born right at the ‘fag-end’ of August but seem to have come out all right – chairing three charities and doing various other worthwhile activities that all require a decent intellect and reasoning to do properly.

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    • J Smith

      Your anecdote about yourself does not trump the data.
      Nor does it explain why teachers and psychologists are among the most likely to hold their August born children back one year.

  • Flintshire Ian

    I was born in early August and never felt disadvantaged, other than by not being able to get a legal pint until long after many of my friends had turned 18.
    With the benefit of hindsight, I might have been better at maths and science subjects with more time to develop relative to the rest of my year group (I quit whilst I was ahead with a C at O Level), but my nephew who was born at the end of May has just achieved A* at A level in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry so maybe I just wasn’t great at maths (and the teaching wasn’t spectacularly good either).

  • TrulyDisqusted

    You are so full of Shît!

    you and your “evil white, almost certainly rapist homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic seed of Satan son” will never live long enough to ever be enrolled in a local Britisher Madrassas.

    White, Christian Elitism is history.

    All over the Western world, black and brown non Christians are being enabled. And they are about to enact their revenge for 4000 years of oppression.

    Get yourself a selfi stick and an HD Go Pro and the next generation can witness the genocide of you and yours 24/7 on the Goodbye Infidel Channel.

    That’s the problem with teaching the rest of the world that white people are evil, capitalist racists. Once we invite them to engulf us, they’ll demand the honour of their ancestors is revenged.

    Keep Calm and Smile at your Executioner… you’re genocide is about to be preserved for the whole of Mo-kind in glorious HD!

    Or do you believe that the EU, UK Government or local police political force is going to save you from the angry, oppressed, Islamic bogey man?

    When white Christian three year olds start washing up on beaches, the Islamic world won’t begin a trillion dollar rescue operation.

    They’ll shout Alloo Snackbar!!! Then dance on the top of his skull.

  • CecileP

    In most of Europe the cut off date is December 31st not August 31st meaning that “three year olds” start nursery at barely two and a half; on the other hand formal reading and writing begins a good year later than inBritain (around aged six, or even seven in some Nordic countries) In France there is a fairly high rate of November/December born children (again the youngest in the class) being held back a year when they can’t keep up (the dreaded redoublement ) but it does provide a check and balance to give the youngest children time to catch up. A child I know who born very late August struggled all through school until she was put back a year aged around nine (in the private sector where things are more flexible) changed schools and is now a confident high achieving teenager.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    but does anybody really need to use personal data about exact dates of birth in order to provide a service ?

    I remember the “stock” answer to this has traditionally been to pretend ” ah but what if somebody else has the same name?”, in order to extend further unnecessary and inappropriate and intrusive forms of privacy invasion, whilst all the while bleating on about ” data control”..as if we don’t realise that by giving personal data to business concerns we give control of that data to the same concerns, and they have to get us to repeatedly provide the same data, over and over again,yearly, so they can comply with the Law..

    Potty. but not convenient for members of the public who know about the importance of controlling our own data safely and sensibly.

  • Hamburger

    Unusually we seem to do something right here in Germany. We have a system of can and must children. Children born in the winter must go to school starting after their 6th birthday. Children born in the summer can choose. It works surprisingly well..

    • veritas

      There is much to be said for starting after the 6th birthday.

  • Anthony Marrian

    If a child is disadvantaged by being an August baby, they are certainly disadvantaged if they have a parent who can write “We don’t particularly care about this nursery — I can’t imagine the
    quality of the crayons varies much between different providers…” Such a remark shows a complacent level of ignorance as to what happens in (good) nursery schools. It also falls into the all too prevalent trap of sacrificing the present for the future. A better philosophy is to get the present right; then the future will take care of itself.