Andrew Watts

The cruellest month

Given his birth date, the nursery won’t even interview him. Thank God the school-start rules are changing for summer-born children

The cruellest month
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In six months’ time, my son is due to attend an assessment day for a nursery. The details on the nursery’s website are deliberately sketchy — presumably to avoid parents coaching their children — but it seems to involve my son being observed while he plays and graded on the results of his burbling: it sounds very much like an interview. He is going to be two and a half.

It is easy to be satirical about a child going for an interview at the age of two and a half — his PowerPoint skills are not up to it; we haven’t arranged a single internship for him; he doesn’t have any particularly insightful questions to ask. But my wife and I thought we had better put him forward for it. We don’t particularly care about this nursery — I can’t imagine the quality of the crayons varies much between different providers — but it is the feeder to a prep school which is the feeder to a high school which has some of the best A-level results in north London. We got the impression that this interview would decide his entire future.

Parents become students in this. In north London — the world centre of competitive parenting — there are seminars for new parents and parents-to-be about navigating the English school system. An American friend of mine went to one, and was commended for being ahead of the curve because she was the only one there who was not visibly pregnant. When she admitted that the reason she wasn’t visibly pregnant was because she’d already had her baby, and she was 15 months old, the other parents gasped and ignored her for the rest of the seminar.

Last week, we returned to London from holiday. Waiting for us on the mat was a letter saying that, ‘with regret’, our son had been rejected at the pre-interview stage. The main factor in the rejection, according to the letter, was ‘the position of each child’s birthday in the year’. Our son was born in August.

Now, I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell, and I know that babies born at the end of the academic year are unlikely to become professional sportsmen. In the English football leagues, the number of professional footballers born between September and December is more than twice the number born between June and August. The advantage that children receive from being the oldest, biggest and strongest in their school year — and consequently being the ones who receive encouragement, confidence and coaching — carries on into later life.

I have also noticed, from the number of birthday parties during the Edinburgh Festival, that a disproportionate number of comedians have birthdays in August — almost as if comedians would tend to be drawn from the smallest, weakest and neediest children in any year.

But I had not appreciated the difference birth date makes to academic prospects. In some studies, the difference between a boy born in August and a girl born in September can amount to an average of one grade in each subject at GCSE. (The relative age effect is less marked at A-level, but only because a higher proportion of August-born children drop out before the sixth form. Thirty-five per cent of September-born GCSE students go on to do A-levels, but only 30 per cent of those born in August.) My son was being rejected to safeguard the school’s position in the league tables in 2029.

This week comes the news that the rules might change to allow ‘summer-born’ children to delay their education — and hooray for that, I say. As it was, I immediately felt nostalgic for the days when you had to wait until the 11-plus before being branded a failure for life. When education was streamed at a national level, the gap between state and private education was smaller; as the gap gets wider, there is a greater clamour for private education, and schools can, like actuaries calculating death risk, eliminate any chance of mistakenly admitting toddlers who interview well but are, due to an accident of birth, losers. And although the 11-plus may have been inaccurate and unfair and biased towards middle-class children, it was at least based on something more than statistical probability.

The letter talked about the inevitability of ‘a high level of disappointment’ but expressed hope that our son would eventually find ‘another suitable school’ — as if rejection would prove so dispiriting that we might forget about educating him entirely.

I had thought it was a myth that schools rejected August babies as a matter of course — until I received a letter telling me so. I was foolish for being sarcastic about my son having an interview at the age of two and a half, and about the parents who mocked my friend for waiting until her child was born before thinking of schools; we had marked our son out for failure when we conceived him in November instead of waiting until December.