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My son is the youngest pupil in the class. Should he be kept down a year?

My son is the youngest pupil in his class. He likes going to school and the teacher says he’s working well, but he is very immature and can’t organise himself. I’m wondering whether he should repeat a year?

Unfortunately, someone has to be the youngest in the class. The December age cut-off used in some international schools in Hong Kong means the youngest children in the class are in a higher year band than they would be with a September cut-off.

Educational research clearly shows it is definitely an advantage to be one of the oldest in the class. These older children consistently have a better chance at succeeding both academically and in other areas of life. Younger pupils do significantly less well, particularly those whose birthdays are in the last quarter of the school year.

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For academically average or less able children, this can be a great disadvantage and compound their difficulties in class. Unless schools become more flexible and radically change the way they group pupils, this is unlikely to change.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Let’s focus on the positive: your son enjoys school and he is coping academically. You can help by supporting him with his organisation and encouraging him to be more independent. Set clear routines for chores, homework and packing his school bag. And most of all, maintain the expectation that he does things for himself and is responsible for his own belongings. Boys tend to mature later than girls, so hopefully these things will improve over time.

Understandably, schools are generally reluctant to allow pupils to move to classes out of their chronological age. If they allowed every child with a late birthday to repeat or go down a year group, therefore making them the oldest in the class, it would open the floodgates for others. Some schools however, will consider individual cases if the circumstances are exceptional, or if there is a particular reason that a child is struggling academically or socially. I have seen this work on occasions to the advantage of the child and the school.

You have not stated which year your son is in. Generally, if parents want to push to keep their child down a year, it is better to do it when the child is young as this tends to minimise any potential social stigma. The beginning of primary school is an ideal time. Children in Year One with a birthday at the end of the school year are nearly a year younger than the oldest class members.

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At this point, the age gap is very significant because the oldest pupils have had almost a quarter of their life longer on earth, with all the extra language and play experiences. They have a better chance of being placed by teachers into top maths, writing and reading groups, therefore building their self-esteem and confidence right from the beginning and furthering the “lead” they already have over younger pupils. This sets the bar for the future and is something of a vicious circle as they flourish while others flounder and are forever on the back foot. It is far from a fair playing field, yet younger pupils are just expected to get on with it.

There are many different views about ways of organising schools and grouping children. Classes in most international primary schools have mixed abilities, and teachers have to differentiate work in order to support and challenge each individual at their level. This can be very challenging as there can be a huge gap in academic abilities. Sometimes, streaming is used for subjects such as maths in the upper years. In some countries, children are kept down a year if seen to be failing academically, and end up working alongside children who are younger. This can lead to all sorts of social and self-esteem issues.

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Some schools consider more creative ways of organising classes within year bands. For example, grouping children in age blocks of three months would allow younger children to shine and build confidence from the start. In these circumstances students could then be mixed in the latter years of primary school.

Certainly talk to your son’s teacher about your concerns, but unless your son changes school there are many factors, particularly social ones, which could make a change of year group difficult. Take solace in the fact that reasonably bright children such as your son can still fare well and there are many successful adults who were the youngest in their year at school.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher

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