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Starting school and the impact of age

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Smiling girl with a missing tooth with a healthy lunch


Every year in households with four-year-olds, there are parents having the same conversation about school cut-off dates and whether their child born close to the cusp should go or wait.

While the cut-off month varies across state lines, the question is always the same: "Should I send my child to school even though they may be one of the youngest in their class?"

The answer isn’t simple, as Professor Lionel Page from UTS well knows, but what is now obvious is that there are benefits for children at the older end of their cohort. It’s known as “relative age” and the benefits of being at the right part of it can last into adulthood.

“We know from academic studies that relative age has an effect on school achievement: kids who are relatively older tend to perform better. It could be because they are more mature and relatively more confident,” Professor Page says.

While data from previous studies showed that children with a higher “relative age” received better grades at school than their peers, Professor Page and his colleagues conducted research to see if it had any long-lasting behavioural effects that would have a sustained effect on traits like self confidence, competitiveness, risk tolerance, trusting attitudes and patience – all qualities deemed important for our later success in life.

Their finding? It did. Not only does our relative age at school influence the formation of many behavioural traits and create “long-lasting disparities between individuals born on different sides of cut-off dates”, but it even may impact our career success as adults.

“Something we learned is that people who are relatively older are more likely to end up in leadership positions and to succeed in environments which are relatively competitive,” Professor Page says.

If you are always told you are the tallest or the smartest, that follows you through your school years…[and] helps you build a kind of capital they benefit from all through your studies.
Professor Lionel Page

He believes part of the advantage comes not so much from the head start that being older provides in and of itself, but from the ‘feedback loop’ it puts the relatively older recipient in from an early age.

“It’s confidence building that you can benefit from. If you are always told you are the tallest or the smartest, that follows you through your school years…[and] helps you build a kind of capital they benefit from all through your studies,” Professor Page says.

What else do we know about relative age?

The effect of relative age is particularly well known in terms of sporting performance, a fact many realised when Malcolm Gladwell popularised the concept with his bestselling book Outliers in 2009.

Gladwell shared statistics demonstrating how professional sportspeople across the globe held a distinct advantage if they entered their sport at childhood as one of the oldest in their cohort.

This extra year resulted in better sporting performance from early on, bringing with it the kudos, extra training and resources that come with early-identified talent. Like in academia, the relative age benefit continued on an upward spiral, and has led to many professional sports having far higher numbers of ‘relatively old’ players in each age bracket.

The advantage of relative age at work

Off the sporting field, what Professor Page found is that the “capital” built in the classroom by being relatively older comes back as benefits for those seeking management roles or entering competitive situations as adults.

“What you find is the difference doesn’t go away when you look at leadership positions and competitive things like sport, or who is the president of a school association, or who ends up being a leading politician or a CEO,” he says. 

“If you look at the upper tail of people who are very successful in competitive environments you find they are more likely to be relatively old.”

How important is relative age?

While most parents would be hard pressed not to want to jump on any competitive advantage available for their child, the issue is complex.

Firstly, the impact of relative age seems to be greater for males than for females. There’s no clear reason for this, and Professor Page says that more research would need to be done to find out more about this apparent difference.

Secondly, the advantages of relative age come and go at different stages of childhood and adulthood.

“What happens usually is the advantage is primarily visible in primary school, and fades away in high school and at university,” he says.

So, stay or go?

Given school entry age is already a controversial topic, it’s unsurprising Professor Page doesn’t want to suggest a silver bullet solution. He believes every case needs to be assessed individually.

“Keeping children back is a trade off. There is often a substantial cost in one additional year of daycare and it’s not clear that the benefits for your child will make it worth it. Instead, there will be an advantage at the start which will on average gradually fade away,” he says.

However, Professor Page does believe the educational system needs to be aware of the issue.

“When they are assessing children in terms of maturity, relative age should be factored in. They may have the same kind of ability, but the younger kid may be shyer or not stand out because of that,” Professor Page says.

“Educators should be aware of this when assessing potential: is a child doing well because they are relatively old? Or are they invisible in the classroom partly because they are relatively young?”

As for parents, other than ensuring relative age is factored in at school, this one is still up for debate.

“I’m not sure holding kids back is the answer. Every child is different and there is not a one size fits all solution. Their needs and maturity have to be assessed individually,” Professor Page says.