When should formal learning start?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow do we provide the best education for young children? We have a spectrum of opinion ranging between the  “start formal learning as soon as possible” view which has vocal support from the government and Ofsted and “Too Much Too Soon”  group which so far, in my opinion, is forging ahead on sound evidence and rational debate.

This morning the Telegraph published a letter which reignited the debate. Coincidentally my email inbox contained a summary of research on the connection between summer born children and their identification as having SEN. When should all children start school and what should we do for summer born children to protect them from the impact of disadvantage in their peer group at school are often separate conversations. However there is a strong connection around providing children with developmentally appropriate experience.  So this research from Gary Squires and his team at Manchester University on the connection between summer born children and SEN diagnoses is highly pertinent.

Here is an extract from his summary of their findings which he sent to Educational Psychologists today on the EPNET forum:

“We were able to look at around 400 schools spread across 10 local authorities and collected data from teachers about the level of need (School Action, School Action Plus or Statements) and the DfE SEN Category used for reporting incidence of each type of SEN. This enabled us to consider the question of month of birth in more detail than previous studies, which have tended to look at the whole group of children with SEN as if they were all the same. Previous studies tended to group pupils by season rather than by month. Our sample of pupils with SEN was large enough to allow us to undertake some differential analyses (N=15,640).

The month of birth effect is most marked at School Action – the point where teachers are deciding whether a child has special educational needs or not. As more professionals became involved the month of birth effect diminished at School Action Plus and disappeared when a comprehensive assessment was undertaken for a Statement.

Secondly, even at school action, there is a differential effect by category of need. Those categories that require multi-professional assessments (such as ASD) are less likely to have a month of birth effect. There is no month of birth effect for PMLD, HI, or for VI. The categories most effected were MLD – supporting the OfSTED report that suggested this was being used as an excuse for poor teaching. We prefer to consider it to be a catch-all category which reflects a complex interaction between the development of children and the socio-political demands placed upon schools and teachers. Dyslexia and emotional behavioural difficulties were also highly effected.

Following on from our paper in the BPS journal Assessment and Development Matters, Barry Johnson and colleagues had a look at the referrals to Dyslexia Action and found a similar seasonal effect that matched our data for School Action.

For more detail see our papers:
Squires, G., Humphrey, N., Barlow, A., & Wigelsworth, M. (2012). The identification of Special Educational Needs and the month of birth: differential effects of category of need and level of assessment. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 27(4), 469-481. doi: 10.1080/08856257.2012.711961

Squires, G., Humphrey, N., & Barlow, A. (2013). Over-Identification of Special Educational Needs in Younger Members of the Age Cohort: Differential Effects of Level of Assessment and Category of Need. Assessment and Development Matters, 5(1), 23-26. Downloadable from:

So it seems that the match between what children need and what we currently provide in our schools is not perfect. Ofsted and the government’s aim to give every child a world class education is praiseworthy but their assumptions about how you do that need more careful and considered discussion including looking for evidence of what helps children be energetic, motivated and confident learners. While some children thrive on an early start to formal learning and are thrilled by the opportunities to immerse themselves in the wealth of knowledge books provide others are not. We need to become far more skilled at recognizing what each child needs and confident in getting that timing right so each child has the start in education that is right for them.file9891266155042


About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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2 Responses to When should formal learning start?

  1. 3D Eye says:

    “Recognizing what each child needs.” Indeed.

    Thanks Jeni.


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