London School of Economics and Political Science: National assessments of primary school children skewed by average age of class

The higher the average age of a primary school reception year-group, the less likely children are recorded by teachers as having a ‘Good Level of Development’ in national end of year assessments, according to new LSE research.

The report, by Dr Tammy Campbell, follows her widely publicised previous findings that many summer-born children are inaccurately labelled as having special educational needs. This latest project – funded by the British Academy – shows that all children in a class are affected by its average age in end of year assessments. The higher the number of older children in the year-group, the lower the chances for everyone to be assessed as doing well, even autumn-born children.

Using National Pupil Database (NPD) census records for six million children who were in state primary schools from 2008-2018, Dr Campbell found that among children in reception in 2018, for example, a summer-born child in a much older year-group had an estimated 58% chance of being attributed a ‘Good Level of Development’, the key measure of the end of year assessment. A comparable summer-born in a young year-group had an estimated 65% chance, while an autumn-born in an old year-group an estimated 79% chance, and an autumn-born in a young year-group, an estimated 83% chance.

Her findings are consistent across all the years studied and different versions of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) – introduced by government in 2003 as a national compulsory assessment for all children in state education in the summer of their first, reception year at school.

Dr Campbell, Assistant Research Professor at LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), says this may be firstly because teachers unconsciously perceive children relative to one another, so a child who is in reception with more older children will be perceived as relatively ‘less developed’. It is also likely to be that the processes of ‘moderation’ of the EYFSP, and accountability pressures, force teachers’ assessments into an expected distribution or quota within each school, where only a certain number of children are ‘allowed’ to be denoted ‘Good’ at the end of reception.

As expected, in line with previous research, she found a massive consistent disproportionality by birth month in chances of ‘Good Level of Development’ attribution: on average, across the years 2008-2018, August-born children are 30 percentage points less likely to be deemed ‘Good’ than September-born children.

She commented: “The latest EYFSP revision, implemented Autumn 2021, continues to ignore the dominance of age in determining ‘Good Level of Development’ attribution and ignores the effects of context, external pressures and influences, and relative judgement. Therefore, the EYFSP cannot be an entirely ‘reliable, valid and accurate’ measure of ‘child development’ as intended by the Department for Education (DfE).

“Effectively, children’s age is often being falsely reported to their parents as their ‘development;’ many parents of summer-born children are being informed that the development of their child is not ‘Good’ simply because of the month of their birth.

“EYFSP results are intended by the DfE directly to influence teachers’ practice, which will impact and differentiate children’s trajectories: but these ‘results’ are skewed and problematic.”

Dr Campbell’s findings show that the patterns of teacher assessments contradict other research studies which tend to suggest that being around older peers enhances skills in areas such as language and social development – both supposed to be measured by the EYFSP.

She added: “The DfE states that it uses amassed EYFSP judgements to inform policy ‘both nationally and locally.’ If the data are questionable at the child level, can they be trusted at the aggregate level?

“The DfE states a commitment to ensure assessment criteria are based on the latest evidence in childhood development when devising and applying the EYFSP assessment. But as the assessment is not age-contextualised, it ignores the systematic and glaringly common sense and obvious changes and advances in most children’s development as they age, and the difference in time lived and developed between four- and five-year-olds.”