Summer-born children unfairly labelled as having special needs

Beneath these numbers lie real children and families. The past decade’s SEND system reforms have not improved their experiences.
- Dr Tammy Campbell
school child 747 x 560

Summer-born children are being unfairly labelled by primary schools as having Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND), according to new research from LSE funded by the British Academy.

For example, nearly half of summer-born boys are categorised as having SEND by primary schools, the paper says, creating needless anxiety for children and parents.

Using National Pupil Database (NPD) census records for over 6 million children who were in state primary schools over the years 2008-2018, Dr Tammy Campbell found that among children reaching Year 6 in 2018, 16% of autumn-born girls had been attributed SEND Support at some point during primary school, compared to 26% of summer-born girls, 28% of autumn-born boys, and 40% of summer-born boys.

Patterns of SEND attribution are mirrored and preceded by early ‘attainment’ tests during the first years of primary school. On average, from 2008 to 2018, only 39% of summer-born boys have been ascribed a ‘good level of development’ in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, at the end of reception, compared to 80% of autumn-born girls. At the end of Year 1, over the years 2012-2018, 64% of summer-born boys have been recorded as meeting the ‘expected standard’ in the Phonics Screening Check, compared to 84% of summer-born girls.

These disproportionalities by birth season and gender are present throughout primary school, across cohorts of children, and are most pronounced around the end of the infant years (age 6/7/8): by which point children have been subject to three sets of inflexible, non-age-standardised assessments.  For example, when the cohort of children who finished primary school in 2018 were in Year 2, 8% of autumn-born girls were attributed school-level SEND Support, compared to 27% of summer-born boys.

Dr Campbell, Assistant Research Professor at LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, argues that England’s rigid early testing and curriculum regimes are inappropriate, particularly for younger children. She explains that they are set up to sort children into the ‘expected’ and ‘good’ who ‘meet standards,’ and those who are deficient. This results in over-attribution to summer-borns of SEND, and contributes to “inequalities, inefficiencies and insufficiencies” within a dysfunctional SEND system.  

Her paper says:

“It is not only arbitrariness and haphazard inconsistency that characterise the ‘nightmare’ and ‘confusion’ of the Kafkaesque system. Alongside these aspects is a structural creation of SEND within the context of the wider school and policy environment. Rigid prescriptive ‘expectations’ not suitable for relatively younger children result in many of these children being denoted with SEND, and then the system that has created these needs cannot or will not meet them. This is because inherently by the same conditions through which it creates some SEND, it is configured not to serve the children it attributes.

“It is configured instead to denote children as sufficient (‘good,’ ‘meeting standards,’ ‘expected level’) or deficient (not ‘good,’ not ‘meeting standards’ not at the ‘expected level’). This, the evidence begins to suggest, may contribute to increasing numbers of children being forced from the mainstream system, as reflected in the rise of those with EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plan) and those being educated in Special Schools, as well as the rise in children not educated in school at all.

“Teachers and schools are spending increasing portions of time serving the needs of the centralised assessment and accountability system, delineating children according to its dictates, rather than working with individuals to ensure learning, progress, and inclusion.”

Children can be recorded with SEND at two levels:

Lower: decisions about who has SEND are made by the school, and provision is funded by the school. Outside agencies may be involved in assessments and provision in some cases, but not necessarily. Support at this level is not statutory/guaranteed.

Higher: Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) level: decisions about whether to award an EHCP are made by the local authority (LA). Provision is then statutory and legally guaranteed (in theory), and funded by the LA. This is intended to be for children whose needs cannot be met by existing provision and funding within mainstream schools.

Dr Campbell found that overall patterns are similar for ‘higher’ local authority-funded statutory SEND provision. For example, among children reaching Year 6 in 2018, 1.7% of autumn-born girls had been granted statutory SEND provision at some point during primary school, compared 1.9% of summer-born girls, 4.5% of autumn-born boys, and 5.2% of summer-born boys.

Dr Campbell commented: “Higher-level SEND provision should very much be based on children’s own needs and disabilities: and these do not inherently vary by birth season. So the fact that there are birth season patterns in even this higher-level statutory decision-making and provision shows systematic dysfunction in the workings of the education and SEND systems.”

The SEND system is currently under review by the DfE, having been described as a ‘nightmare’ by the 2019 Education Select Committee.

Dr Campbell added: ”Beneath these numbers lie real children and families. The past decade’s SEND system reforms have not improved their experiences: the system remains insufficient, inefficient, and unequal. More and crucially, different, reform therefore seems necessary. This is why it is important to continue to examine from all angles the factors that play into and construct the SEND system: which, as a whole, is characterised by ‘nightmares’ and ‘dashed hopes,’ and which fails to serve the children it should be supporting.”

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities within the English primary school system: What can disproportionalities by season of birth contribute to understanding processes behind attributions and (lack of) provisions? is a working paper due to be published on Tuesday 1 June 2021 by LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE).

Dr Tammy Campbell is Assistant Research Professor & British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at CASE.