The summer birthday doom

summer birthday partyThere are many fantastic advantages to the summer birthday, assuming the British weather gives us half a chance. Parties out in the open, days out, barbecues, light evenings, what more could we ask for? Well, quite a lot, it seems.

In the news today, the plight of the summer-born child was highlighted, with statistics confirming what teachers have known for a long time: the average summer-born pupil will spend their school years playing catch-up. Of course there will always be super-smart August-born children and winter-born strugglers, but, if taken as an average, a child is many times more likely to do well at school and in their exams (SATS and GCSE’s) if their birthday falls in September or October. And the effect even spreads as far as sport. Premier League footballers and Olympic athletes are more likely to be winter-born too. Interestingly, summer-born students do better at A Level than winter-borns, but that can be explained by the fact that only the “terriers” among the summer-borns are still on the traditional academic highway by that point. Clearly the lost year has a profound impact on many children for many years, and can shape their life experiences and chances.

So what can be done about this phenomenon? Are our summer-born children doomed to under-achieve for their whole lives? Should they just give up now and be content with their lot? Or should we try somehow to level up the playing field so that all our children, their parents and their teachers can expect the best outcomes, regardless of birth dates?

One possible solution is the practice of delayed or part-time entry, an option that is open to parents right up until the date that their child reaches compulsory school age, which can be up to a whole year. This can help greatly when a child is just not ready to cope with the demands of school life and just needs time to “be” before they are thrown in to the world of rule and convention. The downside is that, once they do join the class full-time, they are put in with children who are not only older than them, but have also been used to school routines for up to a year longer, and have made friendships already. The summer-born child is now quite possibly at a double disadvantage.

So how about going further? Well there’s the possibility of admission out the normal age group. This is not something that is well known, well publicised or easily offered but it is out there. The current advice from the DfE states that “Children born in the summer term, however, are not required to start school until a full year after the point at which they could first have been admitted – the point at which other children in their age range are beginning year 1. Should the parent wish their child to be admitted to reception, rather than year one, at this point, they may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group. Paragraph 2.17A of the code requires that, in any circumstance where a parent requests their child is admitted out of their normal age group, the admission authority must make a decision on the basis of the circumstances of the case and in the best interests of the child concerned.” So school leaders and LEA’s will need to be convinced of the benefits to the child, and they will not always agree. There have been cases where the Head of a school has been happy to accommodate the admission but the LEA has decided against. An extremely frustrating outcome for parents, especially when it seems that the people closest to the child are of one opinion and the people furthest are of another. But at least it’s a possibility, worth fighting for.

But if, as has happened for decades, we assume that the majority of summer-born children will end up with their own age year group, like it or lump it, how can we make their school experience less “catch-up” and more “positive”? The fairest way, in my opinion, would be to make the targets, hurdles, exams and grades age-specific rather than year-specific. There are independent schools and grammar schools that have tailored their admission exams so that the child’s performance is graded taking into account their age in months rather than which school year they happen to be in. Yes, it’s still stressful to take an exam, but at least children are only compared with others who have had the same length of life-time to develop and mature. If this is possible on a small, local scale, it oughsolutions to help summer born children to thrive at schoolt to be possible on a larger national scale, if planned, researched and resourced properly.

There are those who would argue that the resources just could not be found, that it would take away from the current provisions to support strugglers. But isn’t there a chance that many of those strugglers would not need that extra help if they were in an age appropriate class with age appropriate targets sitting age appropriate exams?


47 is the not so magic number…

No one in teaching should look forward to their 47th birthday. Especially if they’re female. Anecdotal evidence shows that the most likely kind of teacher to need help from their union caseworker is the “older female”, and by that I mean 47+. The most alarming pattern is being replicated in school after school, where experienced teachers, who have done a good job for many years, achieving good results for the children in their care, are suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of a numerical target, or receiving an R.I. in their observation.  Suddenly all their tricks of the trade are considered out dated or unacceptable, they are side lined, their contribution and wisdom no longer worth heeding. They gradually lose confidence that they can do the job they’ve done perfectly well for so long, and that loss of self-confidence, coupled with the bombardment of new initiatives, targets and methods, turns an experienced wise owl into a bewildered and exhausted shell of a person. Now that many schools have adopted a pay and performance management policy that links performance with “capability” procedures, a teacher can find themselves frighteningly quickly on “informal support”, which is the start of the slippery slope. The speed of demise is often the most shocking aspect.

So what happens next? Well, lots of older teachers are swapping higher paid, higher responsibility roles for mainstream teaching ones. They sacrifice their responsibility pay, and often their upper pay spine pay for a quieter life. Some go further and drop their hours. They hope that, by stepping out of the firing line, they may be spared some of the flack. And this does work for many. They appreciate the head-space they have now gained to concentrate on the core role of teaching, even if they’ve got less money in the bank each month, and of course in their pension pot. However, it can backfire, and sometimes so gradually they don’t even notice for a term or two.

In order to avoid ever going through such upset and humiliation again, they set to with the planning and copious in-depth marking to such an extent that they’re spending as much time or more on school work than they did when they were full time. And that’s just to stand still and achieve what this year’s targets and demands require. Every term, every year it’s that bit more difficult. How can this be sustainable?

These are not the kind of teachers that the government or Ofsted would have you think. Not the “read-the-paper-while-the-pupils-copy-page-37-into-their-exercise-books” kind of teacher. (Do they even exist at all?) These are the fun, practical, no-nonsense, get-things-done teachers who are fantastic to have on trips and residentials, who put on great class assemblies and after-school activities or special events, who have inspired so many children with their own-brand methods, who put in the extra time with a child who has fallen behind – not because of the box-ticking, but because they want that child to catch up and do well. They are being driven out in large numbers and their loss is an absolute tragedy. Think of a good teacher from your school days – it’s likely to be one of these kind; the box-ticking, hoop-jumping types are just too beige to stay in the long-term memory, after all.

We should be cherishing these teachers and finding ways of letting them continue to light up children’s education, even if their faces don’t fit the one-size “ideal”. Who says teachers should all do it the same anyway? Where on earth did that come from? My mother, long since retired, taught for 35 years and said she came back into fashion every 7 years. “I just wait for my turn to be fashionable again,” she would laugh. In those days, you could hang on for your turn to come around again. You didn’t have to bend with the wind – as long as your results stayed true. I think it was called respecting colleagues’ professionalism. Another thing that’s gone well out of fashion…