One in three premature babies fare less well at school

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New research shows that almost one in three children born prematurely (before 37 weeks) have lower Key Stage 1 (KS1) test results than children who are born at full term (37-42 weeks) and more than a third have special educational needs (SEN).

Analysing data on almost 12,000 participants in the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol, researchers found that prematurely born children were at an educational disadvantage compared to children who were born at full term and this was more marked if they entered school a year earlier because they had been born prematurely.

For example, a preterm baby born in August may start school a year earlier than if they had been born a few weeks later in September on their due date. The study found that these infants placed in an earlier school year by their early birth had lower scores than those in the correct year.

Up to 1 in 6 preterm infants may be enrolled in school a year earlier than they would be if they had been born at term.

There is a gradual reduction in mean KS1 scores for all children born after September (and hence younger in the school year) but in children born prematurely, the pattern is more marked.

Speaking about the findings, lead author Dr David Odd, a clinician based at Southmead Hospital NICU in Bristol, said:

‘Our research indicates that children who were born prematurely are at higher risk of poor school performance and in greater need of additional educational support at primary school. Some of the social and educational difficulties these children face may be avoidable by recognising the impact that their date of birth has on when they start school.’

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Former first Children’s Commissioner for England and Professor Emeritus of Child Health, University College London, said:

‘The increase in survival rates for premature babies is a great medical success. However, the consequence of this for too many infants is that their educational needs are not being addressed adequately, including the age at which they start formal school education. Education experts must look at these data and argue for a change in policy so that the school entry age for children born prematurely is based on their expected due date rather than their premature date of birth.’

Dr David Whitebread, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Education at the University of Cambridge added:

‘This important and scientifically rigorous study of prematurely born children demonstrates yet again, as is the case with summer-born children, that the present primary education provision in the UK is failing to meet their needs. Our young children are being required to learn in overly formal ways at too young an age, and this is particularly damaging for the disadvantaged, the most vulnerable and the youngest children.’

Wendy Ellyatt, Founding Director and CEO, Save Childhood Movement added:

‘This is an important and highly relevant piece of research that further backs up the Too Much Too Soon Campaign’s arguments about the dangers of developmentally inappropriate policy-making. Neurodevelopmental maturity is an essential pre-requisite for healthy learning and development. It is now evident that not only are summer-born children particularly disadvantaged by an early start to formal learning, but also pre-term infants – and we know that such early disadvantage is likely to then impact on the whole of their school lives.’

Preterm birth, age at school entry and educational performance by David Odd, David Evans and Alan Emond was published on 17 October 2013 in PLOS One.

 

Notes to editors:
1.Children of the 90s has been charting the health and well-being of 14,500 children since they were born in the early 1990s. Based at the University of Bristol, the study is core funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.
2. The paper, Odd D, Evans D, Emond A, ‘Preterm Birth, Age at School Entry and Educational Performance’ is published today, 17 October 2013, in PLOS ONE.
3. Dr David Odd is available for interview. For all media enquiries, contact Dara O’Hare, communications manager at Children of the 90s on +44(0)117 331 0077, +44 (0)7891 549144 or email dara.ohare@bristol.ac.uk.

News coverage of this story:

Daily Mail: Premature children should start school a year later: Study finds babies born early have 50% more chance of failing at reading and writing

Independent: Premature babies more likely to underperform at school, study finds

Nursing Times: Premature babies ‘at disadvantage’

Telegraph: Premature babies ‘go on to struggle in the classroom’