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A third of children not primary school ready - May, 2016

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While last month saw thousands of families across England find out where their children will be spending their first day at primary school, new data from The Key suggests that at least 194,000[1] pupils could be starting ill-prepared for the classroom come September.

Almost a third[2] of children who start school are not considered to be ready for the classroom according to primary school leaders in a new report published today by The Key – the organisation providing leadership and management support to schools.

The State of Education report, based on the views of more than 1,100 school leaders, reveals that almost all (99.5%) primary school leaders say a proportion of their pupils are joining school below the level of school-readiness they expect and nearly a third (31%) believe that over 50% of their new starters are arriving underprepared. This means fewer than one in 100 (0.5%) school leaders consider all of their pupils to be at the expected level when they start.

Lack of social skills (79%), delayed speech (78%) and deficient self-help skills/resilience (69%) are believed to be the most common reasons for children not being at the expected level when they enter school. More than half of primary school leaders also say that underprepared pupils are arriving with reading (58%), writing (56%) and numerical levels (55%) below the standard they’d anticipate.

While some heads said that pupils were arriving without toilet training, others commented on the impact of technology on children being ready for the classroom.

One primary school leader said: “We are having more and more children entering our early years stage with delayed speech and a lack of school readiness. I feel much of this is down to challenging family circumstances alongside the rise of mobile phones and other mobile technology, which means parents are more often to be seen on the phone than talking to their children.”

A headteacher at another primary said: “There is limited parent/child interaction. Four year-olds know how to swipe a phone but haven't a clue about conversations”.

The findings come shortly after baseline tests, intended to measure the abilities and progress of all reception-class pupils in English state schools, were dropped because they were found to be unreliable[3].

Speaking about the findings Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key, said: “It’s predicted that 336,000 more children will enter primary school by 2024 - almost half of whom will be entering in the next couple of years[4].  School leaders are already struggling to retain staff and manage their teachers’ workload[5], so add thousands more pupils arriving ill-prepared for the classroom to the equation, and the burden placed on our schools will be huge.

“To lessen this load more should to be done to ensure children are arriving at school with the skills they need to learn. An agreed definition of what ‘school-readiness’ means, could be the first step to helping schools, parents and early years practitioners identify what national or localised support is required to meet this growing issue.”

At secondary school level, the majority of school leaders cited low reading levels (chosen by 76%) as one of the most common reasons for children arriving underprepared, along with lower than expected standards of writing (63%) and numeracy (56%). However, fewer pupils joining secondary schools are thought to be below the expected standard than those joining primary schools. One in 10 (10%) secondary school leaders believe that more than half of their new pupils are ill-prepared, while three in 10 (30%) think that 1-10% of pupils are below expected standards.

School leaders at both primary and secondary levels across the country paint a similar picture, though the problem appears more prevalent in the north. Over a third of leaders in schools in the north west, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the north east (39%, 37% and 34%, respectively) say more than half of their new pupils are not ready for school. London was close behind, with 32% of school leaders believing this, followed by the south west (26%) and south east (21%).

The annual State of Education report attempts to unpick some of the big questions about challenges, concerns and priorities in the education sector today. How is population growth affecting demand for school places? Is there really a shortage of teachers?

Find out more by downloading The Key’s State of Education report and accompanying infographics:


[1] At least 194,003 children are not considered to be ready for primary school. Primary school leaders were asked to select the proportion of their pupils starting school below the level of school-readiness they would expect. The lower limit of each range of pupils and the % of school leaders/schools were applied to the latest reception class pupil figures to arrive at the total estimated figure. (2015 - See table at bottom of press release for more information.
[2] Latest census data on size of reception classes: 636,761 pupils (
[3] On 7th April, The DfE announced that reception baseline assessment will not be used as a starting point to measure pupil progress following a comparability study:
[4] The DfE statistical release, National Pupil Projections - Future Trends in Pupil Numbers:
[5] 84% of school leaders found teacher workload difficult to manage over the past year and it is expected to be the third biggest challenge in the year ahead, behind budget pressures/lack of funding and teacher recruitment and retention. The Key's State of Education report
About the survey
The Key surveyed a sample of its members in January 2016. The questionnaire for this study was designed by The Key and conducted online using Survey Monkey. 1,188 school leaders completed the full survey. The data has been weighted to match the population profile of schools in The Key’s database in terms of region, school phase and school type The data described in this summary can therefore be taken to represent the views of school leaders on The Key’s database, which in turn provides an indication of the opinions of school leaders in mainstream schools across England.
Proportion of pupils joining school below expected level of school-readiness % of primary school leaders (schools) Estimated number of pupils (based on lower range)











22, 064



23, 885



28, 979

51% +


94, 502



11, 462




* We asked primary school leaders to estimate the proportion, within eight bands, of their pupils that start school below the expected level of school-readiness. We calculated a lower limit for the mean answer by multiplying the lower limit in each band by the percentage of respondents in the band to get a total, summing these totals, and dividing by 100, to estimate the sample mean. This mean percentage was then multiplied by the most recent figure ( on total pupils starting reception to give an estimate of the total number of pupils who are not school ready.

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