Children with summer birthdays are more frequently identified as having a special educational need according to the findings of Month of Birth and Education, a new study by the Schools Analysis and Research Division of the DfE. Moderate learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties, and speech, language and communication needs are particularly over-represented in summer-born pupils.

The aim of the study was to draw together all the available statistical and research evidence on the month of birth effect in education to present a complete account of what we know about it and how this links to various areas of school policy. In addition to SEN, the study covers attendance, exclusion, curriculum, pedagogy and early years provision.

Explanations for the SEN/ month of birth effect

Explanations for the higher prevalence of SEN in summer-born children include stress experienced as a result of early failure generating lower self-esteem and expectations for younger pupils, and failure of teachers to make sufficient allowance for relative age in their assessments of educational need; these reasons are inextricably linked to the general trend of lower attainment compared with older peers.

The study analyses previous research to expand on these points.

  • Length of schooling – summer born children may start infant school a term or two later than their peers.
  • Relative immaturity of younger children when starting school – if younger children are not developmentally ready, they may struggle to fully access the curriculum. Early failure and stress experienced as a result of this may lower self-esteem and expectations, causing the pupil to struggle further
  • Expectations of teachers – namely that teachers do not make allowances for relative age in making assessments of educational needs. Thus seasonal variation in SEN could be due to misidentification among the relatively younger pupils by teachers and other professionals who do not make adequate allowances for the range in ages when making assessments.

Mislabeling as SEN at an early age may increase the risk of summer-born children developing secondary problems, such as a failure to fulfil their academic potential, lower self-esteem or emotional and behavioral problems. This hypothesis may help explain the continuing link between SEN and month of birth into secondary school, when one might expect the age effect to diminish with absolute age.

Policy options

The study considers policy options for tackling the month of birth effect on SEN identification. These include:

  • monitoring referral rates for relative age effects
  • reviewing the identification process to ensure that a normal rate of development among younger children is not mistakenly identified as indicating a learning difficulty or psychiatric condition, including encouraging teachers to exercise caution when referring young children for special education
  • pre-referral intervention strategies
  • using standardized assessments for identifying SEN rather than relying on referrals from teachers
  • increasing awareness among teachers
  • personalization of expectations and the curriculum.

Strongest link at earlier stages

The study notes a clear gradient in the numbers of children identified as having special educational needs by month of birth, which is stronger at the earlier stages of education.

At the end of Key Stage 1, August-born pupils are nearly 90% more likely to be identified with SEN than September-born pupils. At the end of Key Stage 2, August-born pupils are 60% more likely to be identified with SEN than September-born pupils; this reduces to 25% more likely by the end of Key Stage 4.

Some types of SEN are associated with month of birth to a greater degree than others. At Key Stages 1 and 2, moderate learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties, and speech, language and communication needs have the highest overrepresentation of summer-born pupils compared with the whole cohort.

By Key Stage 3, the size of the month of birth effect has started to shrink for moderate learning difficulty and specific learning difficulty, but speech, language and communication needs remain at a similar level of disproportionality. By Key Stage 4, the overrepresentation of summer-born children continues to shrink but still stands at over 5% for moderate and specific learning difficulties.

Important questions

The study argues that a question remains at the heart of the issue of SEN identification: is over-identification of summer-born children a good thing or a bad thing? Does the additional support provided to younger children identified with SEN outweigh any negative effects on self-esteem and expectations /aspiration?

This leads to questions about what is the ‘right’ level of SEN as an identification of children who require additional learning support, and how we would tell whether the level was right given a particular context or a change in the rate of identification.

It’s also ambiguous whether a potential is-identification of summer-born children is a good thing or a bad thing for their prospects. This could be viewed as a benefit – receiving support to help catch up with older children, or a disadvantage – suffering from labelling that might lead to low self-esteem and ultimately compound the disadvantage.

The current research literature does not directly address these issues. From the analysis in this paper, it remains possible that month of birth effects on attainment could be even larger if some of the younger children were not receiving additional support via SEN status.

Month of Birth and Education (Ref: DFE-RR017)