TESS Article 7 – Early years have a lot to answer for


This is a copy of the article which was recently published in TESS. It was based on the following post and comments.

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve been frustrated with the idea of “Christmas leavers”.The school leaving age regulations state: “Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date; this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between March 1 and September 30, it is May 31 of their fourth year of secondary school. For children born between October 1 and February 28, it is the last day of the December term of the school session in which they are 16.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many of the children with the most challenging behaviour are in this latter group. In a recent visit to an off-site behaviour support unit, I was struck by the exceptionally high proportion of boys who were – or would be – “Christmas leavers”.

It’s interesting to relate this to the correlation between age and Standard grade attainment. There is a significant negative difference in attainment for boys who fall into the Christmas leaver category, whereas there is no such correlation for girls.

I can’t think of any better evidence that early years education has an influence upon attainment in later years. Yet we continue to send children to school as young as possible. As a colleague recently commented on my learning log: “I have never been able to understand parents who send their kids, boys or girls, to school before they have to.

“But he/she is ready for school” is the usual refrain. It’s nonsense. If kids are “ready” at four and a half to start school, they will be even more “ready” when they are five and a half.

To continue this link between early years and secondary school outcomes, it’s interesting to reflect that many boys find themselves in the “bottom group” in their early primary years and, unfortunately, stay there throughout their school career. The move to active learning in early years is certainly countering some of this, and I’m greatly encouraged by what I am seeing in our classrooms. There is a much greater level of engagement in the learning process than had previously been the case.

Nevertheless, the gap in attainment between younger and older children does require that we think very carefully before allowing “young” children to commence their primary school education.

Recent research, and our intuitive understanding, into the link between the ability to read and the ability to access the curriculum would suggest that a child’s developmental level is a key factor in their success or failure. Yet we treat younger children, who might be 20 per cent behind in their development, in exactly the same way as their peers. Is it any wonder that they struggle, disengage and seek displacement activities in their later years? If we don’t get things right at the beginning, children are playing catch-up for the rest of their time in school – yet so many of them never catch up.

7 thoughts on “TESS Article 7 – Early years have a lot to answer for

  1. Some of the research into gender differences in learning strongly support the concept of delayed entry for males. Here in the states the standard beginning of kindergarten is to be five years old by September 1. The research argues that delaying the entry of formal education for boys by one year or so provides them the ability to enter school more mature and better able to perform the learning tasks that await them. In addition if what starts well ends well then it is certainly advantageous to have a good beginning. The child feels successful and capable and this self-confidence can carry them far.

  2. Charlie

    I take it that this means that some kids are nearly six before the can attend school, e.g. if their DOB is late August? I’d support something like this in Scotland.

  3. An interesting connection, Don. Thanks.

    Legally, the requirements on compulsory schooling remain, but the new Early Years Foundation Stage is, like its predecessor, designed to extend the ‘nursery ethos’ (if we want to call it that) through to the end of the academic year in which a child is five. There’s also a growing interest in some areas in England in taking the pedagogy associated with good EY practice into the rest of Key Stage 1 – into the years in which children and six and seven. Although inaccurately, people have been talking about “Extending the Foundation Stage.” This would echo Charlie’s report on ‘delaying the start of formal education,’ so that while the legal requirements of compulsory attendance remains, the style and feel of the experience is hands-on, based around play and the effective interaction of adults with pupils.

  4. I read your initial blog about ‘school readiness’ with interest and directed our Nursery teacher’s attention to this as we are dealing with deferrals for Primary One at the moment. Your article in TESS will be distributed too as it endorses what we believe in the Early Years and gives us a feeling of support as we encourage parents/carers to consider a deferred year in some cases. After the three schools in Tranent amalgamated I was ‘reunited’ with my former nursery pupils who were now in P2 and P3. As predicted the pupils that we had wanted to defer were sitting in the lower 20 per cent. In these instances parental preference for Primary One had prevailed.

  5. Thank you for posting this interesting article.

    I am a parent of three young children and I am in *exactly* this position with my middle child. He is just 4 (with a late December birthday) and in theory will be starting school this August. We live in a small village where class sizes are small so in his current year he is by far the youngest. There are no January or February birthdays and the next to him in age is a girl in November who is way ahead of him in some ways. I look at him with his peer group and I do worry. He comes across as immature in some ways – for example he cannot sit still for long and is not good at listening to instruction. On the other hand he is extremely physical and his co-ordination and balance is superb. His speech is fantastic – and he speaks very clearly (assuming he is not screaming) and he is loving and caring (mostly).

    We have toyed with the idea of keeping him back a year as I do feel he is very young. But – if I look at the year below him – they are *very* young compared to him. The next birthday is in March so he will be almost 3 months older than the oldest. As I said he is very physical and I fear that he could get bored by repeating the pre-school year and get into trouble and potentially become a bully. Of course this is not something I wish for my son.

    I am finding it extremely hard to make my decision. The deferment forms came through just last week – and looking at the criteria for a child starting P1 my son either already does them all (in the case of all the physical aspects) or is well on the way. There was nothing which was a complete ‘no’. At the moment I am leaning towards sending him into P1 in August but I am not finding it an easy decision. I would happily keep him back a year if I felt it was the right thing to do. There are still 6 months before he starts and he will change a lot and grow a lot in that time as I saw my oldest son do. Also he has some good friends in his current year and I am reluctant to break those friendships having already moved him when we moved house in the Autumn.

    One thing that I think would benefit my son would be to have the two intakes into school like they have in England – so just giving him a couple more months.

    Finally – although I don’t have the references to hand – I believe that there is a change in the approach to P1 starting this new academic year. Introducing more play time to give a smoother transition – I hope that will help my son too.

    I would welcome any thoughts/comments on my situation.

  6. My own children were both born in October, so I conveniently dodged this problem myself, but my instinctive response would be to ask; do you have to decide right now? I don’t know the protocol, but I would be tempted to ask your school if you can wait until nearly the end of the session to make your mind up. If you are lucky enough to be able to stay at home for your children, why not play safe and defer your son? Nursery staff are excellent at devising more challenges for those who need it, and you’ll have time yourself to come up with extra activities for him to do outside school. Only wish I had that time back again.
    Hope things work out for you.

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