Does birth month affect school success?

Posted on January 17, 2012


'Russian Schoolroom' by Norman Rockwell (1967)

Dateline: 25 November 2011 // Posted by: Aisling Fallon

Source: Evening Herald

Story: “Birth month affects child’s school success”

Summary: Researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK have come up with a theory concerning our birth months and how they are related to our academic achievements and well-being in the future. The research claims that children that are born in September–i.e., at the beginning of the school year–are more likely to achieve good marks in their studies. The research also claims that pupils that are born in August–i.e., at the end of the school year–are more likely to be the pupils that struggle in their academic endeavours.

As an extension of this research matter the researchers claim that students that are born in August are most likely to be the students that admit to being unhappy at school and/or finding their school-work and tests difficult. The research also claims that on average, it is more likely for August-born children to continue their education in vocational training rather than going to University, whereas people born in September are more likely to attend a university than to study for vocational qualifications.

It is also claimed that of those August-born children who do go to university, they are less likely to attend the most prestigious universities than children born in September.

The report proposes that the parents or guardians of August-born children tend to spend more time encouraging their children. The researchers suggest that this is out of guilt as the parents can see the children are unhappy and they are attempting to make things up to them.

Why is this PseudoNews? There are many aspects of this article that lead me to believe that it is a piece of PseudoNews. Firstly the article title–‘Birth month affects child’s school success’–suggests that the piece of research was going to look at the correlation between the differences in academic achievement and well-being and the twelve months in the year. However the study was only focused on the last month of the school year and the first month of the school year.

Another point that the article made was that the parents of August-born children feel guilty about their children struggling with unhappiness and life in school and try to compensate for this: ‘It says that parents of August-born children “provide a richer home learning environment” on average by the age of five.’ However there is no information in the article about how the researchers discovered that August-born children have a richer home life. There is no data or evidence cited from the study to back this assertion up.

In the article overall there is a lack of sufficient detail and data. There are very little statistics that show striking differences in academic success between august born and September-born people. The article does not tell us anything specific about the sample group they used for this study. For example, we are not told if any of the children surveyed have any particular learning difficulties such as dyslexia or other medical conditions which could have an effect on their school life.

The article also points out that the researchers drew on ‘data from existing studies’ to plan their research. However the reader has not been told anything about the previous research. We do not know who ran the research, or where and when it was ran. We also do not know if the research was successful or unsuccessful in proving that September-born children are most likely to be successful, happy and in control of their lives in the future.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? There are many features of pseudoscience on show in the article. One of the features seen is lack of empirical evidence. As mentioned above the author of the article mentioned briefly previous studies into this area of research. However there is not enough detail given to make any constructive points in relation to previous studies.

The statistics used in the article are meant to give a sense of professionalism to the article. Unless you look closely at the statistics and points given you may be fooled to think they are impressive statistics that prove the assertions made but that is not the case. For example some of the language used in the article is used to ensure that the article will be safe from severe criticism and cannot be thoroughly refuted. The words underlined in the following sentence taken from the article highlight this: ‘It stated: “They are also slightly less likely to attend high-status universities, suggesting that month of birth might have consequences into adulthood.”

Another feature of pseudoscience evident in the article is confirmation bias. This occurs when the author of a report or article is sure in their assumptions. They ignore anything that may hinder their assertions and ultimately fail to mention anything which may refute the assertion they are discussing.  In the article the author fails to mention any way in which the study may be wrong. The author does not mention anything about the other months of the year, lack of evidence or proof, previous learning difficulties or any other of the multitude of conclusions which may or may not explain the data better.

The moral of the story: With more study, extensive data and attention to detail I believe that the assertion that people born in certain months may have a higher likelihood of being happier and more successful than others in the future. But, as of yet, this study is not sufficient.