More boys than girls begin school a year late and more girls than boys begin a year early. But researchers are not certain whether maturity is the explanation.
Researchers Sara Cools, Pål Schøne and Marte Strøm have studied the differences between boys and girls with regard to pupils who either defer or expedite school start in their article ‘Forskyvninger i skolestart: Hvilken rolle spiller kjønn og sosial bakgrunn?’ (‘Displacement in school start: The role of gender and social background’).
“Gender is the most important factor when it comes to deferred school start. Twice as many boys as girls start school a year late,” says Sara Cools.
The background for the study is the so-called maturity hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, girls mature intellectually earlier than boys do, in accordance with girls entering puberty earlier than boys. This uneven maturation process also results in a gender difference in school performance.
“We have initiated a larger project in which we are taking a closer look at gender differences in school performance, and the present survey is also a preparation for this larger study,” says Cools.
The data selection is gathered from Norwegian Education Base (NUDB) and consists of all children who completed lower secondary school between the years 1995 and 2008.
“This study of early and late school start does not tell us anything new or revolutionary, and neither can it confirm or refute the maturity hypothesis,” says Cools.
“But we believe it is important to map out which factors are decisive for deviations from the norm.”
The study shows that deferred school start is most common among boys, whereas expedited school start occurs mostly among girls.
“In total, most children start school at the regular time, in autumn the same year as they turn six, or seven for the children who started school before Reform 97,” Cools explains.
“But approximately eight per cent of the girls who are born in January start school one year early, whereas approximately nine per cent of the boys born in December start a year late.”
One day’s age difference, such as being born on December 31 and January 1, normally involves starting school a year apart. This demonstrates how accidental it is whether you become the oldest or the youngest child in your class.
“The fact that more girls than boys have their school start expedited may also reflect the common assumption that girls are generally more mature,” says Cools.
An advantage to be the oldest
“What consequences does it have to be either the youngest or the oldest in the class?”
“Being the oldest is positive short-term. On average, those born in the very beginning of the year get better grades than those born just before Christmas,” says Cools.
However, she emphasises that this effect gradually fades out.
“Most studies do not find any significant long-term effect of being the oldest in the class. By long-term we mean that it no longer has any significance when the children are grown up, for instance when it comes to education and income.”
Being the youngest in the class also has consequences.
“Several studies show that those born in December, and particularly boys, are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. A Danish study shows that these children also have bigger chances of being caught for criminal offences.”
Cools and her colleagues have also looked at what significance parents’ education may have for early or late school start.
“In general, parents with higher education are more likely to change the time of their children’s school start. In particular, they are more likely to let their children start a year early,” says Cools.
“These children also seem to perform better. We don’t think this is because they start school a year before, but rather that those children who start school earlier would do well in any case.”
More boys than girls born in December have their school start deferred.
“It seems that we are more prone to draw the conclusion that boys who are born late in the year are not mature enough for regular school start,” she says.
Thinks girls mature earlier
According to Ingeborg Folløy Solli, economist and associate professor at the University of Stavanger Business School, there are many indications that girls mature earlier than boys.
“But we can’t be sure,” she admits.
Solli is part of the Agder Project (Agderprosjektet), where one of the aims is to develop and test a pre-school program that will contribute to giving children an improved and more equal learning foundation when they start school.
“We know that the oldest pupils perform better than the youngest. We also know that girls perform better than boys. The question is whether it also has to do with maturity, if girls mature earlier than boys? We don’t know this for sure, but there are many indications of this.”
According to her, it might be a positive thing to defer school start for the more school-immature children.
“Research shows that being the oldest in the class is an advantage. Thus for immature pupils, deferring school start may help the children perform on the same level as the rest of the class,” says Solli.
“In Norway we already have a certain flexibility and the opportunity to start a year early or a year late for particularly mature or immature children. But the question remains whether there should be even more flexibility if the parents believe there are reasonable grounds for that.”
Cools’ survey showed that mature girls who started school a year early did not perform poorer than the class average.
“This confirms that these children were particularly mature and that the flexibility within the system is used in accordance with the intention,” says Solli.
“This is different in the U.S., for instance, where particularly resourceful parents often let their children start school a year late regardless of their level of maturity, in order to take advantage of the positive effect of being the oldest child in the class.”
Girls better than boys in Norwegian – and maths?
Solli emphasises that here in Norway the gender difference in school performance is biggest within the subject Norwegian as primary language.
“The girls perform much better than the boys in Norwegian. The gender differences are definitely biggest in this subject, and the differences increase throughout the entire primary and lower secondary school,” she says.
Solli refers to figures from Statistics Norway (SSB) showing that of those children who finished lower secondary school in the spring of 2017, the girls had an average mark of 4,2, whereas the boys had an average mark of 3,5.
In maths, however, the boys perform better than the girls. At least they did for a long time.
“The strange thing is that although the boys are on average better than the girls throughout the entire primary and lower secondary school, the figures show that even within this subject, the girls nevertheless end up with better average marks and examination marks,” says Solli.
She has no explanation to why this is the case, however.
“Perhaps the exam is formulated very differently from the national tests.”
National tests versus exam
Marit Dorothea Bjørnstad, senior adviser at the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, emphasises that you cannot compare the results of the national tests and the exams, primarily because they measure different things.
“National tests measure skills, not subjects. The results aid teachers, head masters, municipalities and authorities in their work to ensure facilitated and high quality teaching to all students.”
The exam, on the other hand, is a final assessment of one subject.
“On the exam, the candidate is required to demonstrate that they have learned what they are supposed to according to the subject curriculum. The examination mark shows the individual pupils’ level of knowledge as expressed on the day of the exam,” she explains.
“National maths tests measure skills related to numeracy and algebra, measurements and geometry, statistics and probability. The exam will also test skills related to other areas within the subject.”
Weak students defer school start
Both the girls and the boys who start school a year late perform poorer than the class average when they finish tenth grade. The differences are bigger among the girls than the boys. According to Sara Cools, this may indicate that parents find it harder to defer school start for girls than for boys.
“These differences nevertheless seem to show that there were good reasons to defer school start for these children. Those who are displaced are generally the weaker students, and if we are to believe research on the effects of deferred school start, they would probably have performed less well if they had begun school at the regular time.”
She believes the reason why parents let their children begin school early or wait a year is that they fear the mature children might get bored or that the immature children might not be able to keep up with the teaching and the other pupils.