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
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 head teacher’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.