Regardless of where the school entry cut-off date falls, or how much flexibility you give parents in deciding when their child starts school, some kids are always going to be the youngest in the class. The key to responding to this challenge is to recognise the difference that being less mature makes.
A new Curtin University study that I co-authored is the first Australian research to investigate the effect that a child's age relative to their classmates has on NAPLAN performance. We reviewed the performance of 80,000 Western Australian government school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 who sat a NAPLAN numeracy, spelling, reading, or punctuation and grammar test in 2017.
As a group the oldest children in a WA classroom, born in July, performed significantly better than the youngest students, born the following June. The same pattern was found in all year groups and all tests, however it was strongest among Year 3 students and progressively weakened through years 5, 7, and 9. We expected this, as in the higher grades the age difference of 11 months becomes a smaller proportion of their total years lived.
This research builds on two previous studies I led that found that in Western Australia and around the world the youngest children in a school-grade are much more likely to be "medicated" for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than their older classmates. In WA primary schools students born in June were approximately twice as likely to take an ADHD drug as their oldest classmates, born the previous July.
Our NAPLAN study indicates it is normal for the younger children in a class to be a little bit behind their older classmates academically. Our ADHD studies raise concerns that some kids who behave immaturely because they are younger than their classmates are given amphetamines and similar drugs to modify their behaviour.
The vast majority (98 per cent) of WA schoolchildren are in their recommended school-grade. This is very different to other states, particularly NSW where parents have greater discretion in deciding when their child begins school. Most children born in the later months of the NSW recommended school-grade intake, particularly boys in wealthy areas, start school a year late.
While this may help some children it increases the age range within classrooms and may make the problem worse for other, often socio-economically disadvantaged, young for grade children. I believe a better solution is for parents and teachers not to be alarmed if young for grade children are a little behind academically, or worse still treat immature behaviour like it is a disease requiring medication.
Dr Martin Whitely, Research Fellow, John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin University.