As free nursery places are approved for UK children whose parents want to hold them back from school at the age of 4, our writer looks at how later admission works in the US

Holly Yeager

You’ve paid for the finest nursery and started the Chinese tutoring early, filled your child’s room with books and showered him with improving toys from the day he was born. So what else can the modern parent do to give a child a leg up in the big, bad world of education? How about delaying the start of primary school, holding him back a year even before he gets his feet through the classroom door?

Last week Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, announced that parents who believe their children are too young to start school at the age of 4 will be able to keep them in free full-time nursery classes for a year. Campaigners say that the scheme, to be introduced in England in September 2011, will particularly benefit summer-born children, who are young for their year, and boys who are often not mature enough to start reception year at the age of 4.

The practice of “holding children back” in the hope of giving them a head start is already common in schools across the US. But does it really have a positive effect? While some American parents make the move based on concerns about their five-year-old’s readiness to enter kindergarten – the first year of primary school in America – critics say that all too often there are other forces at play.

“Some parents are being very egocentric,” says Frederick Morrison, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan, who studies the phenomenon. “They just want their kids to be stars, they want them to be noticed by the teacher and that won’t happen if they are shorter than or lighter than or more immature than the other kids in class.”

With an extra year under their belts, these children could instead be poised for greatness: the smartest, the tallest, the most co-ordinated. They’ll stand out in school and in sport. Why not reserve a space for them at Harvard right now?

The legal age at which US children must begin their schooling varies by state, but it is usually set at 6 or 7 – much later than in the UK. However, the pervasiveness of parents voluntarily holding their children back before kindergarten – dubbed “red-shirting”, after a practice of holding American university athletes out of competition for a year – is startling. A survey by the US Department of Education in 2007 found that 14 per cent of children aged 5 to 6 had delayed entry into school, or had parents who planned to delay their entry. In some areas – most often those where parents can afford an extra year of pricey pre-school – the level can reach as high as 25 per cent of the classroom.

The practice is more common among boys and tends to be concentrated in some geographic areas, though nearly absent in others. “Middle-class parents are savvy about wanting to know what the trends are and wanting to make sure that their kids aren’t outside the norm,” says one education professor.

That’s what comes across in a recent post on a parenting blog from an anxious mother in New Jersey. “I am thinking of holding my daughter back so she is emotionally ready for kindergarten,” she wrote, “but I’m also thinking about it because I worry that she will be the youngest since everyone else is holding back.”

“It’s pernicious,” says Morrison, who is concerned, as are many other educators, about the effects on the rest of the student body.

Already, teachers must reckon with children who are 12 months apart in age – a big difference when they are just 5 years old. “On every dimension you can think of, you are going to have kids stretched out along a continuum,” says Beth Graue, a former kindergarten teacher, who studies school readiness at the University of Wisconsin. “You’ve got to accept that you are going to have gigantic five-year-old girls and tiny five-year-old boys who are going to want to do different things.” When some children begin school a year later than their peers, the range – and the challenge for the teacher – is that much bigger.

Parents who hold their children back most often cite worries that their children are socially immature and that such behaviour will affect how the teacher treats them, rather than concern that their academic ability isn’t up to par. “He simply was not ready to go to kindergarten last year at the age of 5 and so we were able to keep him at home,” a mother explains on a different parenting blog. “Sure, he could have done well with the academic curriculum last year, but the academic aspect of kindergarten was not why we kept him out an additional year. It was the social/emotional/mommy-knows-best thing.”

In other cases, it is teachers who meet incoming students at screening or sign-up sessions and suggest that their parents give them what is euphemistically called “the gift of time”. The children may cry when they are separated from their parents; have a hard time holding a pencil, skipping, hopping or jumping; or roll around on the floor when a story is being read aloud – problems that educators see as a question of maturity, fixing themselves with the turn of the calendar.

And sometimes parents seem to be involved in a bit of social engineering. “So much of this has to do with changing a kid’s biography to make it better than a parent’s biography,” says Beth Graue. It can be fathers who were always the smallest in the class hoping to guarantee that their child is the tallest, or that their days sitting on the football bench are replaced in the next generation with on-the-field stardom. (These are sometimes the same parents, Graue says, who later demand extra attention for their child, complaining that he or she is bored in class and needs special work to be challenged.)

The notion that small differences in age might make a big difference on the field is familiar terrain to Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker magazine writer and bestselling author. In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell studied ice hockey teams in Canada, where the game is high on the list of national priorities.

By the time kids are just 9 or 10, they are already being selected for elite teams, extra training and top coaching, and at that young age, those born nearest to the January 1 cut-off date – the oldest in each year’s grouping – are usually the best, with the extra few months giving them a real advantage on the ice. With more special attention, that advantage seems to stick: Gladwell found that in any grouping of elite hockey players, 40 per cent were born in the first three months of the year.

He noticed similar patterns in other sports, including English football, where the eligibility date is September 1. At one point in the 1990s, there were 288 Premier League players with birthdays in September, October, or November, and only 136 born in June, July or August.

Gladwell argues that such systems unfairly squander the talent of would-be athletes with unlucky birthdates, and has instead proposed the establishment of additional leagues, with cut-off dates in the middle of the year, to give others their shot. He also worries that schooling is “just like hockey”, with a small initial age advantage persisting throughout the classroom years.

But most education experts agree that delaying the start of school brings no lasting benefits. “In the short term, people notice that their kid knows more colours than another little boy,” says Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “But in the long term, that all washes out.”

Age engineering in the classroom isn’t new. Graue says that someone asked her when she was five months pregnant – her baby was due to be born in summer, placing it in the young end of a future kindergarten class – if she planned to hold her child out of school. (He went to school on time and is now a teenager.) But, she says, something has changed.

“There is this idea – and it seems to be taking hold more and more – that you never want your child to be behind the curve. Parents want their child to be the best bike rider, the best football player, the best reader,” she says. “And they think that there is going to be psychological harm if they are not the best at something. Life shouldn’t be a competition.”

The US National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, has taken a position against the practice, arguing that delaying the start of school labels children as failures at the outset of their school experience”.

The group also cites academic research that says the age at which children starts school does not affect their future academic performance – while warning that there could be problems with emotional development for children who are held out. (Proponents counter that if a child is to be held back at all, it is better to do it when he or she is young and peers are less likely to take notice.) Other critics complain that because delaying entry into kindergarten is a route more likely to be taken by wealthy families, it merely worsens existing inequalities in how well prepared children are for school.

It remains to be seen how red-shirting will play out in Britain, but the whole debate makes the recent past – when parents sometimes pushed their high-achieving children to move through school more quickly – seem like a distant memory. As the principal at a Washington primary school told me: “People never ask to skip a year.”

Source: Times Online UK