Skip to main content

Higher Education

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What plans they have to address the particular educational needs of children born in August who are at present substantially less likely to enter higher education than those born in September.

My Lords, the recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which we have commissioned on this issue shows that August-born children perform less well in schools than those born later in the school year. We are examining its recommendations and will report back shortly.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s assurance on that. In considering the further research proposed by the institute, would he consider the desirability of adding whether social class has any bearing? While further research is taking place, would he see advantage in informing primary schools of the extent of the difference, particularly at key stage 1, where there is only as much as a 50 per cent chance of achieving the required level.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an excellent point, which is that we need this research to be well understood by professionals in schools. The publication of this report and the significant media debate to which it has given rise are ensuring that teachers become increasingly well aware of the issues raised. It is the Government’s intention to put out to schools materials which make these issues clear so that those people who are best placed to make the difference—head teachers and teachers—school by school are in a position to do so.

My Lords, giving local authorities more flexibility over when to admit children could be one solution to addressing these inequalities, yet when we rang the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it seemed to have no idea of how many schools have multiple intakes. It went on to say that this is not the sort of information that it has or keeps track of and it even went so far as to say that it would not know how to procure it. Does the Minister agree that this is exactly the sort of information that the department should be aware of if it is to make meaningful comparisons and address this problem?

My Lords, I am certainly prepared to look at this issue further, and indeed we are doing so. However, as the noble Baroness said, this would involve a whole new data-collection exercise, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to engage with their schools on issues such as the start date for children. It is not that there is no public authority with a direct responsibility; there is—local education authorities have this responsibility at the moment. I shall look at whether there is any value in gathering more data at the central level but I am very mindful—not least because of the noble Baroness’s strictures—that new red-tape burdens will be resented by those on whom we place them.

My Lords, in the 1930s, the qualifying age for entry to secondary education was based on the age of a child over the 12 months from 1 September. When, 74 years ago, I entered a grammar school in Durham county, because my birthday was in September, I was effectively almost 12 months older than my classmates with birthdays in August, and I believe that that conferred a significant educational advantage. Is it not time that the Government reconsidered the standard age for entry into primary and secondary education?

My Lords, I am glad to have such a good account of the success that the noble Lord has achieved at every stage in his life hereafter. When we last debated this issue, it became apparent that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who is sitting next to him, had the misfortune to have been born early, which makes his achievement in life all the more remarkable. Policy prescription in this area is genuinely difficult. If, for example, we allow children to be admitted later, then we simply have another group of students who become the youngest in their class. So I entreat those engaging in the debate to recognise that, while there is an issue, there is, in this area as in so many others that we have to address, not an instant answer that cures all ills.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this anomaly reinforces the case for universities to offer degrees on a more flexible system of modular courses with credit accumulation, which enables students to choose their own pace of study?

My Lords, we are keen to ensure that, which is why universities increasingly modularise their courses. It is also why, at the school level, we are currently conducting a pilot of testing children at the stage when their teachers believe they are ready to be tested, rather than at the fixed dates currently set for the standard assessment tests which children sit at the ages of seven, 11 and 14. That pilot is ongoing and could lead to changes that ensure that children sit tests when they are ready rather than at fixed times, and that would extend the principle set out by the noble Lord further down into the school system.

My Lords, to go back to the start of educational life and the clear problem that the Question poses, and accepting that there is a big responsibility on local authorities, will the Minister do his best to encourage local authorities perhaps to run special pre-school classes for such children, particularly bearing in mind what my noble friend Lord Dearing said about the social classes—the ones who might be more likely to fail later on?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point, which is particularly pertinent now that pre-school education is nearly universal in the country. The issue of how to ensure that children who are young for their classes prosper needs to be addressed in nursery and pre-nursery education, not just when children start formal schooling at the age of five.