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Premature babies 'at disadvantage'

Premature babies are at an educational disadvantage compared to those born at full term, new research has found.

This difference is more marked when children enter school a year earlier because they have been born prematurely.

A study involving 12,000 children found almost one in three born before 37 weeks has lower Key Stage 1 test results than their full term peers.

The University of Bristol research found more than a third of premature babies have special educational needs (SEN).

Experts are now calling for a change in policy so school entry age for children born prematurely is based on their expected due date - rather than their actual date of birth.

Lead author Dr David Odd, a clinician based at Southmead Hospital NICU in Bristol, said difficulties faced by premature babies in school could be “avoidable”.

“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,” Dr Odd said.

“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.”

In the study, researchers analysed date on almost 12,000 participants from the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol.

They found a gradual reduction in mean Key Stage 1 scores for all children born after September, so younger in the school year.

The pattern was more marked in children born prematurely, especially if they entered school a year earlier because of being born early.

Some preterm babies born in August may start school a year earlier than if they had been a few weeks later in September on their due date.

Data showed up to one in six premature babies are enrolled in school a year earlier than they would have been if they had been born at full term, between 37 and 42 weeks.

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.”

Wendy Ellyatt, founding director and chief executive, 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 is published in PLOS ONE.

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