Today the news is full of the idea that some premature babies should start school a year late to give their brains time to develop, according to research conducted by Bristol University.
The idea follows a study which found that boys and girls born early are 50 per cent more likely to fail the reading, writing and maths tests given at the end of their second year in school.
Children born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are also more likely to be diagnosed as having dyslexia, deafness and other problems that class them as having special educational needs.
However, the Bristol University study found that some of their learning difficulties are simply due to the children starting school too early.
Campaigners argue that if they started school on the date they were due to be born, rather than the date they actually arrived, they would do better.
As a former Deputy Head & Reception Class Teacher I agree with these findings – as we seem obsessed in the UK with rushing children into full time education, denying them time to learn through play, and handing them loads of worksheets.
Here is a wonderfully passionate blog from Jennie Edspire about her children Esther & William and I agree with Jennie
“School is about so much more than academic learning and life is about so much more than school.”
Children in England generally start school in the September after their 4th birthday and this means that a child born several weeks prematurely on August 31 would begin a year earlier than they would have if they had been carried to full-term.
The researchers analysed medical and education information gathered on almost 12,000 children born in the Bristol area. More than 700 were born prematurely.
Overall, the premature children were more likely to do badly in the tests given at the end of the second year of primary school.
Strikingly, the study found that those children who were born close to cut-off date for staring school – and so started their education earlier than they would have otherwise done – did worse.
This suggests their problems weren’t solely caused by damage done by their early birth. Instead their brains were still maturing and they might have done better if they’d started school later.
Researcher Dr David Odd said that up to one in six premature babies start school early.
He said: ‘It is easy to look at a premature child’s date of birth and think that is how old they are but they are not that old.
‘These children are going to school in some cases a year earlier than they would have done.
‘Development doesn’t speed up just because you are born earlier. They still have to go through all the developmental stages.’
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONEalso showed that it was not just very premature babies that suffer, with some of those born just five or six weeks early doing badly when starting school.
Previous research has shown that summer-born children, who, like some premature babies, are young for their year, do worse at school and are less likely to get a place at university.
Wendy Ellyat, of the Save Childhood Movement, which believes children are being pushed into formal education too young, said: ‘It is now evident that not only are summer-born children particularly disadvantaged by an early start to formal learning but also pre-term infants – and we show that such early disadvantage is likely to then impact onto the whole of their school lives.’
Sir Al Aynsley-Green, a retired professor of child health and a former Children’s Commissioner for England, said: ‘Education experts must look at these data and argue for a change in policy so that the school entry age for children born prematurely is based on their expected due date rather than their premature date of birth.’
However, Dr Odd said that more research is needed to rule out possibilities such as premature children being stigmatised or bullied if they start school late.