Should children be able to skip a class?


(c) Quentin Blake

“Is Back to the Future real?” my son wanted to know.

“No.” I said regretfully. “People don’t know how to travel through time yet.”

“Oh.” The Boy looked disappointed.

“Hey, maybe you will invent time travel one day!” I said.

The Boy laughed modestly. “I might need a bit of help,” he mused. “Maybe Daddy and I can do that next week.”

He is nothing if not ambitious.

But honestly, I would not be surprised if he did invent time travel one day. He has already worked out his own method of doing multiplications at 5 years old, and can add two digit numbers and reads books in two languages and draws world maps with “Rusher” and Mexico on them.

In the Netherlands, if a child is bright and has an autumn birthday, it is not uncommon for them to skip a year. Often this is done right at the start of a new school, so you don’t have to join an already estabished class and be both the youngest and the newest.

In the UK the accepted wisdom seems to be that having an autumn birthday is an advantage – it is better to be the oldest, especially for boys, they say. Also, moving children out of their age group away from their immediate peers is just not done.

However, there is definitely a precedent of a British child successfully skipping not just one, but several years. I present you with: Matilda.

I mean, seriously. Moving her up to the top class, despite her age, was clearly the best thing to do. Differentiation was a nightmare for Miss Honey, she was getting far too invested in that one student to the detriment of the rest of the class and, generally speaking, you don’t want your kid to resort to telekinesis in order to get rid of their excess brain energy.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. On the eve of The Boy starting reception, I considered asking if he could go straight into Year 1, as he was already reading and doing Maths at about year 1 level. I was concerned that the school would not be able to help him on with so many other children to guide through the basics at the same time. I was worried about him getting bored.

All the people I spoke to about this said the likelihood of him being moved up was practically zero, so I decided to just resign myself to it and hope for the best. As it turned out, they have excellent extra support in Reception and the Boy has two or three one to one sessions in the week to stretch his literacy and his maths, to fill in the blanks that he definitely has and to move him along. I am delighted at how he is doing and his class teacher is brilliant. Also, he is making friends and the thought of him moving out of that group is sad – I am not sure he would even want to.

But the doubts are creeping back in. Reception has these extra resources, but what will happen further up the school? As a teacher, I have plenty of first hand experience of the wide range of abilities you get in a class, and what you need to do to make sure everyone is learning. I don’t have teaching assistants or extra pairs of hands in my class, so catering to the different levels is all down to me.

It is so easy to just let the capable ones be a little bit bored.

This afternoon I sat with a student who was really struggling. I wanted to help her get just one answer to just one question about a reading text. I was painfully aware that my top two students had finished in minutes and were just keeping themselves occupied. But I had to help the weaker student: if I didn’t, she would lose motivation and lose faith in herself and stop learning. If the stronger students are a bit bored now and then… what then?

My students are adults and very self-motivating.

My students pay for their course and have clear goals they are aiming for. This helps them carry on, even when they are not being stretched enough sometimes.

But children live in the moment. They might be planning to become a fireman or an astronaut, but they won’t relate their literacy or maths sessions to this goal. It is still too distant. The hit on motivation for a weak student, who is struggling with the task at hand, is instant and instantly evident, and teacher support can have an instant effect.

The hit on motivation for an able student who is not being stretched is very slow and very gradual. It is the dimming of a light as their battery is run down and not being recharged. And sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t even notice when the battery is flat. Because the visible effect will be that the able student will just slot into what the class is doing and be more easy to manage. It is so easy to let your gaze slide off this and heave a secret sigh of relief.

Ofsted is not going to put the school into special measures for this and social services are not going to come calling. They might not even notice.

My son is loving school and comes home full of stories and excitement every day. Also, he is not moving plates or furniture around with excess brainpower just yet. He is happy where he is. And I don’t think he is going to end up on drugs or in the gutter if he is not challenged, his love of learning is not encouraged or he is not allowed to keep learning at his own speed. But he might also never cure diseases or invent time travel.

What I’m saying is: the future needs the bright kids to be fully charged, not held back because it is easier.

There are of course many, many questions to be asked about this. Is moving children up actually the solution, or should the battery recharging just happen outside of school, at home? Is it more important to stay with your peers? And do we even want time travel?

What do you think?


13 responses

  1. My son is an August baby. He started in Reception in January so he was 4 and 4 months. It soon became obvious that he was head and shoulders advanced in reading and maths than most of the rest of the Year, but being the youngest I just let them and him get on with things obviously feeding his curiosity with information. He was always top of his year and ended up in Year 6 getting 7s for his SATs. He took 12 GCSEs and got A*s and As for all of them. And this in a school that wasn’t renowned for excellent grades. He got As and A*s for his A levels and went on to a great Uni for the Subject he chose. He worked blooming hard and got a First Class Masters. I’m not saying this to boast, but if the school and family work with the child they will thrive. I’m absolutely sure your boy will do amazing things…even invent Time Travel 😊

  2. I’m in favour of staying with your mates in the year group, but yes, children should always be stretched, in a good way. We solved this problem with our two (as well you know) outside the school, by having them learn difficult musical instruments: violin and cello. Of course, this worked because they were both musical and did want to learn. But there are comparable strategies in other areas.

  3. I am in favour of staying with the year group as the child’s all round maturation is best served with his peer group. Then home and school can work at stretching his learning and keeping his batteries charged. I feel sure the boy will go on to do great things one day. Another option for later is to enter him for a scholarship to a private school where resources may be greater at challenging and extending his learning.

  4. I think schools need to start seeing kids as individuals, and no this isn’t a dig at teachers I think the system is wrong. I think that kids get no time to be kids, it all becomes about passing exams far to early and that is all the education is. You are taught how to pass exams – for example I got a B at GCSE geography but up until about 5 years ago (when I shared this knowledge and was mocked by friends and family) I though Cardiff was in Ireland.

  5. This is something I can relate to. My middle child, now year 7, has always been way ahead of his peers. Luckily, he has the personality to just deal with it and get on with it. He didn’t allow himself to get bored. He was given harder work some of the time, but his homework was way too easy for him. When he was in the infants, they used to move him up a class for some English and maths sessions, but he wasn’t happy to leave his friends behind. It seemed better for him to leave him where he was.
    The curriculum now seems to have changed (not sure if it’s nationally or just our school) and my able daughter (year 5) is not being given the harder work to help her reach her potential that her brother was. I think it’s a shame that brighter kids can’t have their fair share of attention.
    My son is now top of his class at a highly selective grammar school, one of the best state schools in the country.

  6. I had the experience of being moved up a year, first at primary school, and later at secondary school.

    When I reached what is now known as year 4, I was put into a mixed year 3/4 class. My heart sank as I felt that I would be held back for a year. But instead the teacher directed a few of us to do more independent projects. So when the class was covering the topic of “telling the time” in maths, we researched the topic for ourselves – mine led me into devouring Roman and Norse mythology, investigating Babylonian numbers, and making a variety of time-telling devices (water clocks, candle clocks, sundials etc). The topic of shapes led to symmetry, tessellation and some topology. It opened me up to a world of truly independent learning, with a teacher able to direct and ensure that I could present my findings, but being practically free to explore to my heart’s content. I could bore you for hours with the projects I did that year – suffice to say I still remember it fondly.

    We moved area in year 5 and my new primary school put me up a year to year 6. That left me following the same year 6 curriculum as everyone else, which felt so staid by comparison. And, when I reached the end of year, I then had to repeat entirely the same curriculum!!! Thankfully I found the local library and museum which ran clubs about anything and everything (from Victorian crime and punishment to astronomy)- but at this point my education was entirely outside of school. So I would strongly advise fully knowing the option at 11, before any accelerating before then.

    At secondary school I also skipped a year, along with a couple of peers. Children hit puberty at different ages, but of course as one of the youngest there is a risk of being less mature, as well as being in contact with older pupils as they begin their risk-taking adventure of adolescence. Academically it was fine on the whole, though I think that I always ended up struggling more than necessary with chemistry, having missed some initial building blocks. Even a year ahead we were all still towards the top of that yeargroup by ability so were entered for exams even earlier. But the challenge of making up ground was enjoyable at the time. However when it came to thinking about university and beyond, being young had some disadvantages: it reduced my options for university (at the time Cambridge would not allow under18s to matriculate). I had my offer for Oxford at 16, but I’m not sure that I was entirely ready to arrive with other freshers who were up to 3 years older. Whilst I loved my time there, there can be a risk that you end up being defined as the “young one”!

    Interestingly skipping a year continued to have an impact in my early career. Again I would often be up to 3-4 years younger than some of my peers (who had the luxury of gap years, or longer courses). I did find that my age was carefully considered in promotion discussions, especially where I was initially managing graduates. Today it shouldn’t be a shock to have young female managers, but I did have one Dutch male colleague some 30 years older who clearly struggled! And again, being younger than my peers was firmly part of my identity, something I didn’t manage to shaken off until motherhood, when I was suddenly older than many others!

    So, from my own experience, acceleration in school is not a solution I would seek: firstly it simply accelerates you along the same linear curriculum, (which is a problem in itself), and secondly there can be unforeseen consequences in being too young – so being held back at some other point of transfer, either to secondary, uni or even beyond. What I found more intellectually satisfying was the horizontal stretching, being able to broaden my interests and explore for myself. I would avoid a race through the curriculum – as you observe, repetition can be a turn-off. But there is so much possible in terms of broadening, and frankly aspects of the schools curriculum are so narrow and predictable, that you should not have to go too far to find some ways to stretch and stimulate him.

    • What a fantastic comment, so many good points! You are right, accelerating through a linear curriculum doesn’t actually do much but get you to ‘finish a race’ ahead of time and leaving you at a loss at the end. I guess I should just go back to reinventing school (and trying out my ideas at home in the weekends with the Boy and the Girl as my guinea pigs)

  7. My son is a July birthday so younger in the school year. He did year 1 with a year 2 class & yr 5 with the yr 6 class, his school pick a few out to do this. Children don’t move up as a class together, each year a child is in a class with some others they’ve not been with before so friendship groups aren’t an issue. It works very well. They still stay in the primary the same length of time though.

  8. I think you are your own best example. Our school was not the best one and definitely did not have a very good extracurricular program. Would you have like to be a class ahead? And how would that have made you feel at the start of secondary school? You have your own answers! I always believe that “what is in, will come out”! Even timetravel solutions 😉

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