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Delaying school entry: what does it mean for parents of children born prematurely?

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Today, new research from the University of Bristol has been published which shows that delaying school entry for children who were born premature, and who fell into a different academic year than the one they were due to be born into, can help improve how well they do in school tests; right up to their GCSEs.

For a number of years, we have been campaigning for more flexibility in the school admissions process for children who were born premature, and have pushed for due date to be taken into consideration when making admissions decisions. The Government is going to be consulting on a new School Admissions Code later this year to try and resolve the issues faced by children born in the summer months when they start school, including those who were born premature.

For parents of babies born prematurely who might be wondering what this all means, we’ve put together some FAQs about this research and the school admissions process more generally:

  • What does this research say about long-term educational performance for children born premature?

This research shows that children who were born prematurely generally do less well in exams and tests, and are more likely to need special educational needs support, compared to their full-term peers. This difference is most noticeable in the very early years of schooling and declines as the child grows. For those who were born extremely early, there was a noticeable difference at GCSE level too.

The researcher found that the gap in attainment was biggest throughout schooling for those children who were born, prematurely, into a different school year compared to the one they were due to be born into. They also found that adjusting scores to demonstrate how a child would perform had they had the option to delay school entry substantially reduced the impact of their prematurity on their school performance.

They concluded that delaying school entry until a child’s ‘correct’ school year could be a benefit for children born prematurely, and particularly so for those who were born very early.

  • My child was born premature but is doing really well at school and with their development. Should I be worried about this research?

No – it is fantastic that they are doing so well! Every child who was born premature will have different needs and will develop differently. For some children, this will mean that they will be ready to start school with their peers and they will thrive.

However, other children will need more support and may benefit from delaying their school entry. Bliss believes that there needs to be greater flexibility in the School Admissions Code so that parents, who know their child’s developmental needs best, are able to send their child to school at a time more suited to them.

  • What does ‘delaying school entry’ mean?

‘Delaying’ is the term used to describe a parent applying for their summer-born child to start reception year in the term after they turn five, rather than going straight into Year One.

In England, children must be receiving formal education, either in a school, at home or other education setting, by the term following their fifth birthday. For children born between 1 April and 31 August, the latest they can start school is the September following their fifth birthday.

However, all children are also entitled to enter reception year in the term after they turn four. While this is not a compulsory year of schooling, it is an important year for play-based learning and preparing children for the more structured environment of formal school when they turn five.

While there is no legal reason why a summer-born child cannot start reception at five, many school admissions teams are reluctant to allow this and would prefer to keep children together with their chronological age group. Many parents have to apply for their child to have delayed school entry, which can include providing hard-to-gather evidence. Sadly, many parents find that their request is refused and they have to decide whether it is best for their child to start reception very soon after they’ve turned four, or to miss some –or all – of reception year and start in Year One at five years old instead.

  • How can a child fall into the ‘wrong’ year?

Babies can be born up to four months premature, which means that for many their due date and actual birth date are very different. For those children who were due after 31 August, but born before this date, they will become eligible to start school the year before other children who were conceived at the same time as them.

Babies and children who were born premature will develop according to their due date, rather than their date of birth. For those children who are experiencing some normal developmental delay because of their prematurity, particularly those born extremely early (before 28 weeks), falling into a different school year can make these issues more pronounced.

It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of children born premature in the summer months have fallen into a different academic year group.

  • Where can I find out more about deferring and delaying school entry?

Depending on when your child’s birthday is, you will have different options about when delaying or deferring school entry. For information about the options you have, please see our school admissions pages.

  • When will the School Admissions Code be changing?

The Government has committed to revising the School Admissions Code – which is legislation all school have to base their admissions policies upon – to solve these issues once and for all. We hope that the changes will mean parents with a child born in the summer months will automatically be allowed to delay their child’s entry, and that the child will be able to stay in that year group throughout their school life.

It’s not yet known when the new Code will be ready, but we’re hopeful that the Government will begin consulting on their proposed changes soon. Bliss will be responding to this consultation and will let you know when it’s been released so you can respond too.

  • My child was born in the summer months, but was not premature – what options do I have?

Legally, any child who was born between 1 April and 31 August doesn’t have to start formal education until the term after they turn five, so you have the option of applying to delay your child’s school entry, too.

If your child was born before 1 April, including born premature before 1 April, you will not be able to delay their school start. However, you do have options and can choose to defer their school start or agree a pattern of flexible attendance with the school (e.g. only attending mornings) until the term after they turn five. You can find out more information about your options on our school admissions pages.

  • I didn’t have the option to delay/my request to delay was refused when my child started school, should I be concerned by this research?

No, this research shows some general trends for how children born at different gestations and at different times of year perform at school. Every child will behave and learn differently and this research does not mean that your child will definitely perform worse than their peers at school.

If you’re concerned about how your child is progressing, we’d recommend you talk to your child’s class teacher or head. Teachers are used to teaching a classroom full of children working at different abilities and with different strengths and they should be able to support your child. If you still have concerns, please call our helpline on 080 801 0322 or email for emotional support and information.

You can read more about Bliss’ response to this research here.


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