Education should not be a competition in which children are pitted against one another

A false choice between having your child be the oldest in their year or the youngest is no kind of choice at all.

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Last week my third son made his entrance into the world. Knowing he could arrive any time from late August onwards, we’d spent the summer wondering on which side of the great school admissions divide he’d land. A birthday on or after 1 September would make him one of the eldest in his school year; on or before the 31 August and he’d be one of the youngest, destined for a lifetime of underachievement and misery. Little good is said of children who, like my eldest child, are foolish enough to be born in late August. “School odds stacked against summer babies, says IFS”; “Summer born pupils ‘being stuck in lowest ability sets’”; “Summer born children at bottom of class, warn experts and parents.” Honestly, if you’re looking to raise a mini-Einstein, best avoid having any sex whatsoever the previous December; it’s just not worth the risk (I write, having clearly made this error not once, but twice).

Only this time I lucked out. This time, my baby managed to hang around until 2 September. Phew! In the feverish global-capitalism-meets-Tiger-Mom contest that is modern education, my youngest had won his first heat. Eldest in the year! Go him! Alas, the victory has proven short-lived.

Yesterday schools minister Nick Gibb wrote an open letter to schools and local authorities, stating the government’s “intention to amend the Schools Admissions Code to ensure that summer born children do not miss out on an important year of schooling.”

“We have […] decided that it is necessary to amend the School Admissions Code further to ensure that summer born children can be admitted to the reception class at the age of five if it is in line with their parents’ wishes, and to ensure that those children are able to remain with that cohort as they progress through school, including through to secondary school.”

Gee, thanks, Nick! My son won the “be born at the start of September, get to lord it over everyone else in your class” race fair and square and less than one week later you’re changing the rules! Now there’ll be others who can sneak in ahead of him! (I tried to explain this to him and his response was to cry like a baby; I hope you’re pleased with yourself.)

Of course, I shouldn’t be seeing things this way. Education should not be a competition in which children are pitted against one another, with each parent desperately trying to make sure that the odds are in his or her child’s favour. It should be about knowledge and enrichment. It should be about unleashing an individual’s true potential, whatever that might be. It should be about making the world a better place, in which well educated people have something to offer both the present and the future. It should be about all of these things yet somehow, with headlines screaming about bottom sets and devalued grades and the fight for graduate jobs, it does not feel that way. Knowledge is no longer power. Power is having the piece of paper that defines you as the right sort of person. You might get it via the education system, but you won’t necessarily get it through the actual learning process.

Gibb’s proposal – which is subject to public consultation and parliamentary approval – plays on a narrative of parental choice. No parent will be obliged to send their summer-born four-year-old into Reception if he or she believes their child is not ready, but those who do wish to follow the current timetable are welcome to continue. Like many narratives of choice, it creates an illusion of making things more equal by downplaying – or not even considering – the broader contexts in which choices are made. Of course it would be wonderful to tailor things to meet the needs of individual parents and children, but in reality this may not actually happen.

In education, as in other areas, parental choice remains a function of class privilege. It enables middle- and upper-class parents to exploit the idea of an educational meritocracy to justify the inequalities from which they benefit. Jump through the right hoop at 18 and you just might end up in the type of place that people can refer back to as evidence for your innately superior talents (and as for those who question such logic? Well, you won't be hanging out with them any more). We know that much of this “achievement” is a polite illusion, a lie that the privileged have to tell themselves so that they do not feel bad or, God forbid, responsible. We don’t talk about playing the system; we don’t even talk about making sacrifices; these days it’s just making a choice and anyone can do that, right?

For children who do not have significant learning difficulties, differences in achievement at 18 are not necessarily meaningful in terms of intelligence, potential or even work put in. They can say more about where you lived, whether your school was independent or selective, what kind of resources (space, time, learning equipment) were available at home, whether you had other pressures (e.g. carer responsibilities) to contend with ... For all of these things, money can help. When your child is born is, however, one thing you cannot control and up till now, money has made no difference to the impact it might have — but in future it could.

Had my youngest been born in August, changes in summer baby admissions policies would have left me with a choice: do I send him to school straight away or do I pay the equivalent of a year’s private tuition fees / forego a year's salary to stay at home and give him that extra edge? One can argue “what's another year?" but another year of that much expense – which, when it becomes a matter of choice, is taken from the whole family, not one pot set aside for that one child - can have a tremendous impact. One might also argue that school is not substitute childcare and that one should be glad to have one's child at home with them for another year. But a child starting school — providing sufficient wraparound care is available — does enable many parents, usually mothers, to become financially independent, which can have a huge impact on the wellbeing and safety of their families. Once again, individual families will end up making decisions regarding their children's educational futures based, not on how much they themselves value education (the "it’s a matter of priorities" argument of the privileged), but on their broader social and economic realities.

The benefits of an extra year at home contract if it means financial hardship for everyone. And when all is said and done, once everyone has played musical chairs with start dates, don't we just end up back where we started? As long as the academic year remains a full year rather than a rolling, multi-level, differentiated set of stages (the resourcing of which is hard to imagine), classes will always have a child who is the oldest and a child who is the youngest. Assuming parents of different cohorts follow similar choice patterns, the age difference between eldest and youngest will remain a year (the class profile, on the other hand, may have changed).

When we talk about making education fair for individual children we don't necessarily mean making it fair for all (in which case it's not fair at all). But beyond that, if the model we cling to is the competitive one, the race, it becomes harder and harder to integrate the other, that of learning as a social good in its own right. My youngest child "won" his first race, then the rules were changed. But as I’ve found with my eldest, there is no real winning or losing; just a society that keeps on telling children they are either winners or losers, even if, in reality, most of them are perfectly fine. Part of me wonders why, if the problem is that some children are not ready for school at age four, we don’t instead agree to free nursery care at that age, with school itself starting later for everyone. But then that would hold back some mini-genius who needs to be separated from the herd asap. And if I thought my child were that genius, I’d probably turn into Tiger Mom, too. It’s not that I approve of the race. The trouble is, in a desperately unfair world, who'd want to be the first to withdraw their child from competing?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.