English: A typical Junior Certificate exam hall.

English: A typical Junior Certificate exam hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently a BBC Radio 4 programme highlighted the differences in achievement between children born at the beginning of the academic year (September to December) and those born at the end of the academic year (May to August). This is not surprising as there can be almost a year difference in intellectual development between a child born in September and one born in August. What seemed to surprise many people s that month of birth affects children even when they are doing their A-levels. So what is the evidence?

Crawford, Deardon and Meghir (2010) examined the differences between the test scores of children at different ages by looking at their performance in national tests such as SATs, GCSEs and A-levels and college/university admissions. They found large differences in achievement at age 7 between children born in September and children born in August. This difference was also linear, which means that September born children performed on average better than children born just one month later in October. The difference between the oldest and youngest children in the year did reduce over time but it was still evident at 18-years-old and affected college/university admissions.

Do other countries have the same problem?

Yes, younger children do perform worse than older children in their year group in other countries too. Fredriksson and Ockert (2005) used Swedish administrative data for the population born 1935–84 to look at the impact of school starting age on education and found that increasing school starting age by one year increases grade point average at the age of 16 by 0.2 standard deviations. Black, Devereux and Salvanes (2008) studied the impact of school starting age on IQ scores and educational attainment using Norwegian administrative data and found that starting school younger has a significant positive effect on IQ scores at age 18 but little effect on educational attainment.

So what can we do to reduce the month of birth effect on achievement?

One solution is to set different grade boundaries at GCSE and A-level for children based on their month of birth. Personally, this seems like the fairest and most practical method of dealing with the issue despite the fact that I have an October-born son who would have an advantage under the current system. All children need to take public examinations at the same time so that teachers can cover the material that is required; therefore, the only practicable solution is to change grade boundaries. However, this would need to be very carefully done to avoid discrimination against any age group.

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