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Summer-born Children (Education Guidelines)

Volume 599: debated on Monday 7 September 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Sarah Newton.)

I want to extend my thanks to the Speaker for selecting me for this Adjournment debate, for even at this late hour the issue I intend to raise is highly important. I can tell the Minister that even at this late hour, although the Gallery may not be packed, a lot of people are watching this debate with real interest and have been waiting for his performance, and mine, for some hours now.

As with most Adjournment debates, the reason for applying for it started with issues raised by constituents. Their cases alone would have been enough for me to want hold the debate, but, as so often, when one starts to do one’s research one realises that something is not just a problem in one constituency but is a national issue. I recognise that others are pursuing similar campaigns. At the outset, I wish to recognise the excellent work of Bliss, the Too Much, Too Soon campaign, and the Summer Born campaign, as well as thousands of parents and colleagues, for I recognise that in raising this matter I follow in the footsteps of angels. I also want to praise the Department for Education and the Minister for the work they have already undertaken on this matter. The Minister will understand, however, that tonight I am going to try to persuade him to go a little further.

The definition of a summer-born child is one born between 1 April and 31 August. The issue, in essence, is that children must enter education by the September after their fifth birthday. So in a reception class starting on 1 September this year, there could be a child born on 2 September 2010 and a child born 11 months later at the end of August the following year. One might therefore expect a huge gulf to be seen in development—a fact that is consistently borne out by studies. It is well documented that summer-born children can suffer from long-term development issues and a lag in educational standards. A DFE study from last year showed that at the end of their first year children defined as summer-born were at a significant disadvantage in comparison with older children. The study shows that two thirds of those born between May and August fail to meet minimum expected standards in reading, writing, speaking, maths and other development skills, compared with slightly less than a third for those born between September and December.

That is understandably worrying for a parent of any child born in these months, but equally worrying is that, while intuitively one might expect this gap to decline as the child progresses through the education system, many studies show that children who are young for their year are typically still seeking to catch up at GCSE level and are less likely to go to university. In June this year, an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry confirmed the DFE study’s findings that younger children were twice as likely to have language and behavioural problems relative to their elder peers. Interestingly, since I spoke about this on the radio at lunchtime, a number of people have contacted my office.

It is noticeable also that Sutton Trust research shows that this issue affects not only the poorest areas in our society but some of the richest—it spreads across our society. As I am sure the Minister knows, it is not unknown for some summer-born children to be told that they have special needs. Moreover, the experience of being persistently outperformed by more developed or older children can lead to serious confidence and inferiority perceptions and bullying. Of course, all these risks are also faced by premature children who are encouraged to start school before they are ready.

This whole catalogue of issues and problems was personified for me in two constituency cases. In the first, a summer-born child entered into reception without any deferral, despite requests to our local council to repeat their nursery years. It became clear that the child needed longer to develop. Therefore, the parents, with the headteacher’s support, using the guidelines in place, applied for the child to repeat reception rather than move to year 1. The admissions manager repeatedly stressed that the guidelines were not statutory, but after pressure the request was eventually granted. However, the council has said that the guidelines are not statutory, and it is now telling the family that it may have to go through the whole deferral process again in year 5. The possible consequence is that the child may miss year 7 and go straight into a secondary school in year 8, rejoining their original age cohort.

The second constituency case was raised by Louise and Ian Hunter in relation to their son Hugh. Hugh was born extraordinarily premature, and has been the beneficiary of the neo-natal unit at St George’s hospital and all its excellent staff. Hugh would not have been ready to enter reception at age 4, so his parents sought to defer it to age 5. One might have thought from knowing the medical history that a letter from the parents would have formed the substantial part of an application to defer his education and that very little else would be required. However, yet again, the local council told the parents that the guidelines were non-statutory, and that there might be issues with other authorities if they chose to move house at some stage. Indeed, the local authority appeared to say that “non-statutory” means voluntary or optional. The local council tried to claim that it needed a precedent to be able to follow the guidelines or clear evidence that Hugh had special educational needs before it could authorise a deferral. Finally, after a lot of persuasion, notice was taken of the guidelines, but there was still confusion over the process. Hugh was lucky to benefit from having dedicated and conscientious parents, and 18 months after their original application to defer, the council agreed to their request.

For many years before the guidelines were published, the whole process was mired in even more difficulty and uncertainty, so the way that the DFE and Ministers have grasped this matter is entirely to their credit and is much welcomed. However, it is clear that this matter remains far too much of a lottery for many. The volume of emails I have received from people from around the country this afternoon, following my performance on “You and Yours” on Radio 4, shows that this concern is not confined to those two constituency cases.

I sought the hon. Gentleman’s permission to intervene and thank him for giving way. As he will know, education is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, but the issues in the cases that he outlines are also apparent in Northern Ireland. My concern regarding my constituents is that summer-born children are sometimes expected to be smarter than their younger counterparts. Has the hon. Gentleman experienced that on the mainland as well?

I am unsure that I necessarily followed that exactly, but the hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a clear point. I am sure that parents in Northern Ireland will be listening carefully.

Going back to my performance on “You and Yours” today, several people have emailed me since and I was particularly struck by a lady who contacted me to say that she had triplets born prematurely at 25 weeks. They should have been born on 1 November, but she was told by her local authority that if she delays their start to school, they will have to go into year 1 rather than reception. That is despite the fact that her children have been diagnosed by paediatricians as having additional needs and developmental delay. Another lady got in touch to tell me about her grandaughter who was born in August 2005 in Dublin. In Ireland, as the Minister will know, parents can choose when a child with an August birthday starts school, so the parents decided to delay her entry into reception. A few years later, it was necessary for the family to move to the UK, where the local authority has insisted that the child starts school with her chronological age group in year 5, thereby skipping year 4. That has caused huge distress and anxiety for the child. Practice differs across the country, but the guidelines are being followed inconsistently and it has become far too much of a lottery.

I spoke to my hon. Friend before the debate to say that I would intervene, and I thank him for giving way. My youngest son, William, started school today. He was born in November and my wife and I just know that he is ready to start school. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason for such a response to his stellar performance on Radio 4 this lunchtime is that this is ultimately about parental choice? Parents know what is best for their children and want greater control over when their children enter the education system.

I wholeheartedly concur. I am pleased to see from some comments that the Minister has made already that he, too, understands and accepts that point fully.

We must look at the practice in other countries. In the Netherlands, parents have the right to choose whether a child has one or two years at kindergarten. In the USA, study at kindergarten can be delayed to allow social, emotional, intellectual or physical growth. In some German states, all children are required to be assessed by a paediatrician or educational psychologist to check that they are ready for school. I am not suggesting that we implement all those practices, but it is clear that there is a recognition of these issues across a number of countries.

I have referred a number of times to the guidelines entitled “Advice on the admission of summer born children”, in which the Minister is well versed. I find it difficult to disagree with a statement that came from his Department earlier in the year, which stated:

“Our reforms are raising the quality of early years education”.

It stated that there was

“a greater focus on the key skills children need for a good start in life.”

That is what the guidelines entail.

Paragraph 2.17 of the school admissions code states:

“Parents may seek a place for their child outside of their normal age group… In addition, the parents of a summer born child…may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group—to reception rather than year 1.”

It states that authorities must

“make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned”;

that they must

“take into account the views of the head teacher”;

and that they must inform the parent of their decision and

“set out clearly the reasons for their decision.”

Finally, it sets out that any application must be taken into account as part of the normal process and not be given a lower priority.

Those guidelines are a real step forward, but there is always a but. In this case, the but is not about the guidelines; there are issues with how the process is being operated in practice, there are concerns about the attitudes of a number of councils and there is a feeling among many parents that they are not getting a fair hearing or that the system is operating a postcode lottery.

Let me briefly set out the issues with current practice. First, although there is no statutory barrier to a child being admitted outside their normal age cohort, there is no right to insist or to appeal. Although the guidelines state that the rationale must be set out, they do not confer any extra rights. Secondly, some authorities allow delayed entry into education but then insist that the child begins in year 1, rather than in reception, thus removing all the hoped-for benefit of starting a year later. Thirdly, some authorities, as I pointed out when describing the case in my constituency, allow a child to defer entry at primary level but give no guarantee that the child will remain in that cohort post-primary school. Finally, there are any number of similar problems for the parents of premature and pre-term babies. Some local authorities take no account of prematurity or the due date.

The Education Committee noted in a report earlier this year that the number of cases where children were being delayed and then admitted into year 1 rather than into reception had increased and that there was an increase in the number of contentious cases.

Tonight, I ask the Minister for minor tweaks that I think would have a substantial impact on the lives of many children. I hope that those tweaks will address the issues that I have described. I know that the Minister has agreed to a review, so I ask him to look at revising the guidelines in three ways. First, I ask that the due date, rather than the birth date, of premature children be used in the definition or interpretation of compulsory school age. Secondly, I ask him to consider giving the parents of summer-born children an automatic right to defer, given that parents have the best feeling for when their children should enter education, with a similar provision for the parents of premature children. Finally, I ask him to ensure that once a deferral has been agreed, the child stays in the same educational cohort throughout their educational career.

If the Minister feels that that is a “perfect world”, that he cannot necessarily agree to all those suggestions, and that perhaps one would be a step too far—although I do not think they are—then surely the default position must be that the onus is placed on the council to prove why a request should not be granted. I hope the Minister will consider the three tweaks, which I regard as relatively minor. Like supporters of the Summer Born and Too Much, Too Soon campaigns, I have been hugely encouraged by the Minister’s interest in this issue. Tonight—or this morning—we have the chance, through those tweaks, to change many children’s lives for the better. I hope the Minister will agree, in his comments this morning, to look at those tweaks and to revise the guidelines accordingly. We have the chance to make a change that will be of benefit to so many children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on securing the debate, and on choosing such an apposite time of the day in which to have it. I also congratulate him on his very effective campaigning on this issue, both for his constituents—Hugh Hunter and his parents—and the other families he referred to. I congratulate him on the fight he has put up on their behalf, and on his campaign nationally on this very important issue. It is timely, as it allows me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on summer-born children, and our intention to amend the school admissions code to ensure that summer-born children do not miss out on an important year of their education and schooling.

The statutory school admissions code currently requires admission authorities to provide for the admission to school of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. A child does not reach compulsory school age until on or after their fifth birthday. No parent, therefore, is obliged to send their child to school before that age is reached. Most parents are happy for their child to begin school at the age of four, but as we know, children develop at different rates, particularly in the early years. Some parents will therefore feel that their child is simply not ready to start school before compulsory school age. To allow for this, the admissions code makes it clear that parents can request that their child attend part time, or that their entry be delayed, until they reach compulsory school age.

Where parents of a summer-born child want that child to start school at the age of five, as the law allows them to, they will start school at the point when their peers are moving up from the reception class to year 1. If they want their child to be admitted to the reception class at this point, they must currently request that they be admitted outside of their normal age group. The admissions code requires the admission authority to then make a decision on the age group the child should be admitted to, based on the circumstances of the case and their best interests. In making that decision, the admission authority is required to take into account the views of the headteacher of the school—as my hon. Friend explained—as they are best placed to advise on the age group at their school in which the child’s needs can best be met. The code also makes it clear that admission authorities must take into account the wishes of parents, alongside other information relating to the child’s academic, social and emotional development.

This, however, is where problems seem to arise at a local level. The decision on what age group the child should be admitted to often seems to be problematic, with the parents and admission authority failing to agree on what is in the best interests of the child. I am concerned about the number of cases in which it appears that the wishes of parents are not being respected and children are being admitted to year 1, rather than the reception class, and are therefore missing out on the essential teaching of reading and arithmetic which takes place in the reception class.

We have always made it clear that there are no statutory barriers to admitting summer-born children to a reception class at the age of five. In July 2013, we published non-statutory advice to help admission authorities and parents understand the statutory framework within which decisions must be made, and to remove the misunderstandings that appeared to get in the way of admission authorities agreeing to parental requests. For example, it clarified that a school’s funding would not be affected if they admitted a child out of their normal age group, and this advice seemed to be successful at dispelling such misunderstandings, but unfortunately it did not result in a reduction in the number of problematic cases, or the number of parents whose wishes were overruled.

That is why last year we amended the admissions code to provide greater clarity about how such decisions should be made, and to improve transparency for parents. The code now makes it clear that the decision must be made in the best interests of the child. It also requires the admission authority to take account of the views of the headteacher of the school concerned, as they are best placed to advise on the age group at their school. The code requires the admission authority to publish the process for requesting admission out of the normal age group, and to set out the reasons for its decision in each case for the parents concerned. It also makes it clear that admission authorities should take into account the wishes of parents, alongside other information relating to the child’s development.

In spite of these changes and the additional non-statutory advice we have published alongside them, I am concerned about the number of cases in which it appears that children are still being admitted to year 1 against their parents’ wishes and are, as a consequence, missing out on that important reception year at school. I am also concerned that some children who are admitted outside of their normal year group are later expected to miss a year and move up against their wishes to join the other children of the same age range—a point referred to by my hon. Friend.

We have therefore decided it is necessary to amend the admissions code further to ensure that summer-born children can be admitted to reception at the age of five, if this is what their parents wish, and to ensure that those children are able to remain with that cohort as they progress through school. We have already begun the work necessary to implement the change. We will conduct a full public consultation in due course and, subject to parliamentary approval, we will introduce these further changes to ensure that no child is forced to start school before they are ready.

Admission authorities may have been reluctant to agree to parental requests because they felt it would open the floodgates—that large numbers of parents of summer-born children would want them to be admitted outside their normal age group—and that, as a consequence, the admission system would become impossible to manage. I do not believe this to be true. The reception year of school is the final part of the early years foundation stage, and we know that most parents are happy for their child to go to school at this point, confident that they are ready for the challenge. We believe that only a small proportion of parents of summer-born children wish them to be admitted to reception at the age of five—for example, children born in the late summer months or born prematurely. On that point—the first of the three my hon. Friend made—I will further consider whether we can make changes in relation to the due date versus the birth date of prematurely born children.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I hope he is happy to learn that we are taking action to address his concerns on the admission of summer-born children.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.