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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Birthday - Is this why you are as clever as you are?

Today holds a special significance if you were educated in the UK. If today is your birthday, that means you were the certainly oldest pupil in your class, and that you have had this status from when you first entered the nursery school.

The significance of this is huge, and is even greater, the earlier the school year you choose to examine. If you consider Reception-age children, the child born on September 1st (5 years old) has been alive for 20% longer, than her classmate, born on August 31st of the year after. The developmental, cognitive and physical capacities of a 5 year old are far superior to those of a 4 year old. And of a 6 year old compared to a 5 year old. Of a 7 to a 6... The pattern goes on to this day, as a second year undergraduate.

Why should being older have an effect? One would think it beneficial to be born younger in the year, as the pupil will be in school earlier in their life than the older child, thus receiving more education. In fact, there is much to be said for gaining the reputation of being the brightest in the class. Consider once more the Reception class of mixed 4 and 5 year old children. A September born five year old is going to be much better able to retain knowledge, to pay attention for longer time spans and so on. This child be rewarded for these abilities - this reward is likely to reinforce their behavior. Over time, the child comes to internalise the identity of being intelligent, and of doing well in school. And it all goes on from there. What the teacher believes, the pupils achieves.

This may seem a little far-fetched as an idea - surely factors such as type of education, 'natural intelligence', parental support and parental education all influence academic performance. Undoubtedly they do, but I did a little study myself to test it, using everyone favourite timewasting tool, Facebook.

Using only my Facebook friends educated in the UK, who are currently studying with me at University of Cambridge, I can infer that all of my sample attained at least AAA at A Level - this seems a suitable enough measure of academic ability, if not that elusive entity, real intelligence. I have a sample, then, of 111 students. Taking membership at Cambridge as an indicator of academic performance through education, you'd expect more of my friends/fellow students to be born in September than any other month. Then October, then Nov and so on until we reach the youngest in the annual cohort, the August borns. Here is the result.

As is quite clear, the theory holds true. September has the highest number, with 16 or the 111 being born in the first month of the academic year. The lowest number is the group born in July (the sample in which I am one of the 5 members). There are fluctuations, notably in January and June. These can be explained by my small sample.

As for the proliferation of June births specfically, it is worth remembering that this is not a random sample but is a sample made up of my friends. Being a July baby myself, I am statistically more likely to have similar educational experiences to those pupils born in June, July and August. This mutual experience could be a meeting point for friendships - if one's educational identity has, as I suspect, an influence on one's personality, it is perfectly logical that people naturally seek out those similar to themselves. This could explain why I have more friends born in June than would be expected by the theory.

So if you were born in September, congratulations, it will undoubtedly have served you well through your education. And if you were born in the summer holidays, keep up the effort.

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