The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

The inequality of deferred entry

Deferring entry for summer-born children may work for some, but not for others. It is time to be absolutely clear about what admissions authorities can and cannot do.

My twin grandsons were born in August. Bright though they are, when they are due to start school – when they just turn four – their parents will be deferring entry to Year R until they are five. Their local authority is prepared for this and supports parents making this choice.

By contrast, parents with similarly aged children in the local authority area where I live will face hurdles deliberately erected to make entry as difficult as possible.

And, until the law changes, these equalities will persist.

It is conventional wisdom that summer-born children do not perform as well at their older peers and this is consistently borne out by research.

According to the NFER, researchers have consistently 'found large differences in test scores between autumn-born and summer-born pupils in attainment at school.'

In 2013 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that, ‘on average, pupils born later in the academic year perform significantly worse in school than those born at the start of the academic year. As well as achieving lower test scores and assessments from teachers, on average, children’s confidence in their academic ability is also affected.’

But parents rarely look at these long-term impacts. They are more worried about the emotional costs of starting school too young.

It is conventional wisdom that summer-born children do not perform as well at their older peers and this is consistently borne out by research

For this reason, researchers also suggest that, if always given the choice, all parents of summer-born children could potentially choose to delay their child’s entry to primary school.

The consequence of this would be that 'year groups would then be made up of summer-born pupils as the oldest in the year and spring-born the youngest in the year.

This would simply shift the oldest/youngest threshold from 1st September to 1st April and fail to solve the underlying problem that relatively older children will perform better, on average, in tests than younger children.'

If it were simply a matter of scores then, as NFER suggests, it would merely require greater emphasis on age-related standardisation but the reality is that parents simply want what is best for their child.

When I first became a headteacher we could keep children down or accelerate them by a year, if that was appropriate to their needs. This worked well for so many parents because it afforded them the flexibility that is often helpful in a child’s primary years.

However, with an increasing nervousness in some local authorities about being in ‘the correct National Curriculum year’, this flexibility declined.

So, it is time to be absolutely clear about what schools can and cannot do.

Flexible admissions?

The School Admissions Code 2014 provides for the admission of children in the September following their fifth birthday, so spare a thought for the child born on 31st August .

However, a child does not reach compulsory school age until the ‘prescribed day’ following their fifth birthday. These prescribed days are 31st December, 31st March and 31st August so, for my grandsons, they are not legally bound to enter school until September 2018.

For parents who feel their children are not ready to start school before they are five, the Code enables them to defer entry until later in the Reception year, or arrange for them to attend part-time.

Unfortunately for summer-born children, delaying admission until the September following their fifth birthday means that they are joining when their peers are moving into Year 1. These parents must therefore ask for their child to be admitted outside their normal age group. And it is here that the system falls over.

The Code requires admission authorities to make a decision according to individual circumstances and in the best interests of the child and, as Nick Gibb has made clear in a letter to stakeholders, parents and admission authorities often fail to agree on what is in the child’s best interests.

The DfE first published its ‘Advice on the admission of summer-born children’ in 2013, making it clear that admission out of year has no implications for school funding and, importantly, 'that children are only assessed when they reach the end of a key stage rather than when they reach a particular age.'

That advice was amended in 2014, requiring admission authorities to take account of the headteacher’s advice.

However, speaking to headteacher colleagues in my LA area, it is clear that they are actively discouraged from agreeing to taking children outside their year.

What has made it more worrisome to parents is that, in some admission areas, local authorities require out-of-year children to be admitted to Year 1, and thus miss out on the important foundational experience of a reception year.

Parents therefore face the difficult, if not unacceptable, choice either to send their summer-born child to school before they are ready or miss out on a whole year of schooling.

Speaking to headteacher colleagues in my LA area, it is clear that they are actively discouraged from agreeing to taking children outside their year

A new determination

Nick Gibb’s letter makes it quite clear that the DfE expects admission authorities to exercise the full flexibility the existing Code affords.

However, for those local authorities with an age-related secondary selection system, the government’s assertion that children are assessed at the end of a key stage rather than at an age seems to have become an insurmountable barrier.

For this reason, the DfE has determined to further amend the Admissions Code in order to iron out precisely the inequalities that have resulted.

We are also promised a public consultation but there is a clear determination to 'introduce these further changes to ensure that no child is forced to start school before they are ready'

Perhaps the government needs to be a little careful. Most research, in both the UK and the USA, indicates that it is largely those parents from more advantaged backgrounds who exercise their right to delay school entry.

Therefore, as NFER’s Jack Worth points out, 'if pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to delay entry to primary school, then the already large attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers will widen, undermining one of the government’s key commitments.' 


'Summer-born pupils: What’s the evidence?'

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