Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Educating Summer Babies

When I was pregnant with ‘Frogmella the bump’ (yes, too much Harry Enfield in our youth) who turned out to be Eldest Son, any existing parent rolled their eyes when I said that it would be a summer baby.  We hadn’t planned it so –after years of being on the Pill, I assumed that when I stopped taking it on my honeymoon that it would probably take a good few months or years to conceive.  It took exactly two weeks.  I returned from my honeymoon in November and began married life by throwing up every morning for five months. 

In fact, I was quite looking forward to having a summer baby.  Frogmella was due to pop forth about mid August time and I had visions of my floating around in a white linen dress and a large straw hat (I have no idea why, I look terrible in hats) pushing a pram in which a gurgling baby clapped its chubby little hands at the blue skies and the dappled sunshine on the trees.  The reality was that by the end of July I had stopped counting after 5 stone heavier, it was sticky and hot that year, and the unbearable pressure of baby wedged so far down the uterus meant that I wasn’t floating anywhere – just waddling like an overweight penguin.  And the only linen dress that would fit me resembled a teepee.

And so it was that I was relieved when Frogmella emerged, a week early, and a boy.  It was not an easy birth, albeit a natural one – and afterwards I just managed to feed my son before I was rushed into surgery due to complications, leaving a stunned G with a 2 hour old baby boy and no idea of what was happening to his wife.  Baby and I emerged four days later on the 6th of August, blinking in bewilderment at the sunshine outside.  And he grew, lying gurgling in the pram in the dappled sunshine, as I slopped about in some joggers, illusions of stylish mummy out of the window.

It was when we were looking at schools that we realised the implications of being born in the summer for our son.  School terms start in September in the UK, in the academic year in which you turn 5, which spans from September 1st to August 31st.  This in effect meant that as an early August birth he had only been 4 for a couple of weeks when he joined, and was nearly a year younger than most of the kids in his class. This had an impact from both a social and an educational point of view.  He had terrible separation anxiety – the first day it took 2 gap year students, 3 teaching assistants and a Head of Year to prise him off me. Things that seemed obvious to a September born child took another couple of months to click with my son.  In sports he would get frustrated, being uncoordinated, clumsy and just not getting the rules of games. And he was tall, and so people would forget that he was young, and get frustrated when he couldn’t ‘verbalise his feelings’.  And as parents who knew no better we would get worried when we saw that the others in his year were on more advanced books, or maths questions, or spellings.

As someone who was brought up in Kenya, our school year started in January, which is my birth month.  In theory that would have made me the eldest, but I was shunted up a couple of years into a class with kids who were 2 years older than me.  At the age of 10, I was with other girls who were more developed physically and socially than I was.  It was a relief for me to come to boarding school and be with peers my own age.

There is a movement by educationalists which encourages the schools to perhaps delay the starting age of summer children so that they are not so disadvantaged.  Under this movement parents will no longer be discouraged by local schools from placing a 5 year old summer born child in a reception class with 4 year olds. It means that in theory the summer babies will have a chance to catch up.

But would that have worked with my son?  In Infants school there is no doubt that there was an enormous difference in ability between the range of ages, but there was the same difference between the genders. Girls seemed to just Get It, whilst the boys bundled like puppies in the corner of the room.  In Junior school the eldest kids, regardless of gender, were the most eloquent and seemed to have an innate confidence which my son took a while to possess.  And now he’s reached Secondary school?

In the middle of taking some GCSE’s a year early, he has adapted to the pressure and knuckled down to work.  In his school year sports he is one of the top rowers, the best sprinter, and is in all the A teams.  The first term that he joined he was chosen out of the year to make a speech at his Year Awards night. At 6ft 1 he would look out of place in the year below. He still has slight confidence issues every now and again, but has learned to sit back and watch.  Years of having things explained to him has made him immeasurably patient with his younger brothers, as he helps them with their homework.  And I have learned to step back now, and not fight his battles for him as the youngest in the year, because he no longer needs me to.

There are times when the parents in my antenatal class have all wished that they had kept their child back a year. And none of us would want to repeat the blood, sweat and tears that it sometimes takes to keep your child focused and confident when he can’t make sense of the world around him.

And there is no doubt that all parents deserve to have a choice.  That gurgling child that lies in the pram, little chubby hands working  to catch the shadows of the leaves in the sun, deserves it.