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The Psychometrics Centre

Cambridge Judge Business School

It’s good news that psychology is becoming such a popular subject in schools. To support this encouraging trend, we’re posting an essay by Ketan Ahuja, a pupil at St. Paul's School, London, which wins the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Centre’s prize as the best school essay on a psychometric topic. We were impressed that, rather than focusing analytical theories or eye-catching applied areas, he concentrates on underlying issues, including statistical phenomena which many students find off-putting. There’s also a sense that Ketan is addressing a subject of some personal interest, a sure way of making theory and research come alive.

Educational Success depends on when you’re born

Ketan Ahuja, St Paul's School, Lonsdale Road, London SW13 9JT, England

There are a lot of myths about education. Sport provides a way of understanding the vexed issue of why some people excel at school, and some don’t.

The Canadian Hockey League reckons it divides players according to natural ability from kindergarten right up to the top professional teams. Just as the sport takes no prisoners, the league attempts to be the most ruthless harvester of talent in the world of professional sport. A closer look shows something slightly different is going on.

In the mid 1980’s psychologist Roger Barnsley discovered that the league was not selecting on the basis of talent. It simply chose the oldest children after a cut-off date: they were the most developed and coordinated. Children selected for the A team in kindergarten received much more training and practice, so that by the time differences in maturity had evened out in teenage years they actually were much better players.

How does this illuminate top-class education? In an international test of mathematical and scientific ability, children born in September were ranked up to twelve percentiles higher than those born in August. This higher ranking translates into places on honours courses. Consequently, those born at the beginning of the academic year receive a much better education than those born at the end, simply by virtue of their birthday. In favouring age, our schooling system is singling out the very oldest for success, and overlooking the rest.

A recent study of the effect on relative age on St Paul’s School, a competitive private school in West London, UK, highlighted an anomaly. Pupils born in the last academic quartile at St Paul’s were found to be significantly underrepresented (see Table 1).

Table 1

Academic Quartile





UK births (%) in each Quartile (1990-1995)





Expected frequency of pupils per Quartile
at St Paul’s





Actual frequency of pupils per Quartile
at St Paul’s










According to this study, an August-born child would have just over half the chance of winning a place at St Paul’s compared to a September-born child. This meant that the August-born pupils would have to be endowed with correspondingly more natural ability to gain their places. Not only would they have to posses the ability to think at a very high level - they would have had almost a whole year less training than their peers - but they would also need to actively participate in class discussion to gain their teacher’s recommendation above those who were scoring higher. In short, they might be expected to be perfect candidates for top universities.

However, the theory that a greater proportion of students from the latter quartiles would gain admission to the best universities proved false. Over the past five years admissions to Oxbridge, Imperial and LSE from St Paul’s were even at around 40%, across all four quartiles. This suggests two possible conclusions:

  • The ability to think logically can be taught- a finding which many experts disagree with
  • Prominent universities are not selecting the right candidates.

The former looks like the best explanation. Some leading schools are recognised for their consistency in gaining places at top universities. This ‘magic dust’ effect of such schools could be explained by their pupil’s very heavy workloads and challenging intellectual interests. Further, the method of teaching at these schools is opposed to the system of ‘teaching to the test’ encouraged by public exams, and incorporates material which goes well beyond the syllabus. Even in the unlikely event that the universities are not selecting the best candidates, the success their graduates enjoy would indicate that the universities teach them the skills they need; once again implying that the ability to think can be taught.

How then does the effect of relative age on intellectual ability differ from its effect on sporting ability? Perhaps it doesn’t. The effect of relative age in sport is characterised by the fact that those with less natural talent overcome those naturally endowed with more talent, because of coaching. That is what happens at St Paul’s School. Those with less intellectual ability are rising to the level of those with more, because of their education. The only reason they do not surpass their more talented, younger, peers is because the focus on their education is not as one-sided as it is in sports: the best students have the same number of lessons as the worst, whereas, in sports programs across the country, A-teams practice many more hours per week than B-teams.

The success of an individual must be governed in large part by such abstract psychological variables as intellect and ability. The measurement in prospective studies of the impact of relative age and education on these variables could prove fundamental to developing a more empowering system of education; one less fixated on whether or not students have the abilities to cope with certain material, and more focused on furnishing pupils with precisely those abilities.


Qianqian Du, Huasheng Gao, Maurice Levi, 2009 Born Leaders: The Relative-age Effect and Managerial Success

Robert Silcock Downie, Eileen M. Loudfoot, Elizabeth Telfer, 1974, “Education and personal relationships: a philosophical study - Routledge; Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, 1996, Virtues of the mind: an inquiry into the nature of virtue, and the ethical foundations of knowledge. Cambridge University Press

Ahuja, Ketan, 2009 The Relative Age Phenomenon – A Study on the demographics of St Paul’s School

A chi squared test showed these results were very statistically significant.

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