Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Summer babies, or why does no one commenting on education understand education?

Just a little one, but I mention it because it seems to me indicative of a general trend. Pretty much everyone nowadays feels free to pontificate on any aspect of education they want (generally related to how shit British schools are) without the need actually to understand what they are talking about.

This morning Nick Gibbs announced a change in schools admission rules to allow parents of 'summer babies' (those born in July and August) not to send their children to reception class as soon as they are 4 but to delay school starting if they felt that to be more appropriate for their child. He said, "Parents know their children best and we want to make sure summer-born children can start reception at the age of five, if their parents think it is in their best interests. We are going to make changes to admission rules - but we want councils and academies to take immediate action."

Pretty uncontroversial, one might think. It has long been known that summer babies suffer a deficit throughout their school career, to the extent that August born babies are 20% less likely than average to end up in 'good universities.' A more anecdotal (but nevertheless fascinating) indication that I have myself tested and found to be true is this: at the beginning of a school year ask a teacher to name all of their year 11s from the previous year. The chances are that the names they fail to remember are those of the July and August-born students.

Quite why this happens is open to debate but it seems most likely that the experience of their first year in school, when they are only just four whilst others are nearly five, sets the tone for summer babies' entire school career. At that age the differences in maturity and confidence can be very pronounced and probably the youngest children become locked into a pattern of diffidence and insecurity from the start.

 What was also unsurprising this morning was that Nick Gibbs made it pretty clear that it was Local Authorities' inflexibility that was the problem here- that the only thing standing in the way of concerned parents doing the best for their children was the dead hand of local bureaucracy. The BBC certainly went along with this implication, as did the papers. Even the Mirror (not known for its instinctive support for the Tories) wrote, "Schools and councils, which are responsible for admissions, often say summer-born pupils must go straight into year one and miss out on the reception year altogether. That means parents can feel pressured to send their child to school before they are ready."

Case closed, surely? This is a much-needed reform, with the government stepping in to remove a needlessly bureaucratic piece of regulation.

Well, yes and no, and this is where the issue of commentators not understanding education comes in. Because there is a reason that schools and local authorities are so intransigent about the year of entry of children into the school system, and that is because they are forced into it by the government itself! Anyone actually involved in the school system would know this, yet as far as I am aware the point has not emerged in this morning's commentary.

The thing is, a school's exam results (and therefore its position in league tables, its Ofsted ratings, even its freedom to avoid compulsory academisation) is based on age cohorts rather than year cohorts. So for instance GCSE league tables (such as the crucial 5+ A*-C including English and Maths figure ) include only the results of students who reach the age of 16 during the academic year in question. Summer babies who have been allowed to enter the school system a year late would be in Year 10 when they reach 16 and so would have no GCSE results to report. Because of their late start they may well do really well, and get a whole hatful of A*-Cs by the end of Year 11, but those results will simply not count in any analysis of the school's success or otherwise. Instead the students concerned will be counted amongst the utter failures- those who have achieved nothing at all.

Let me give a simple example to illustrate the point. Say there are 200 students in each year group and 20 of them are summer babies who have been 'kept back.' Then say 90 (45%) of the year group got 5+ A*-C, including 15 of the 20, who are now not the youngest but the oldest in their year. Excellent! Good result, surely. Errr, no. Because the 'kept back' students' results don't count, though the equivalent 20 from the year below DO count towards the total cohort. So the result the school has to report is not 45% but 37.5% (75 of 200 students). Which, unfortunately, is below the government-imposed 'floor target.'

So the school involved will quite likely be put into Special Measures and flagged up as a failing school.

So the problem is not the admissions rules set by Local Authorities but the system of counting exam results set by Government, as any educationalist could tell you. And yet, not a single mention of that in all the reporting of this I have seen.

Sigh. At least I don't work in schools any more.

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