The press has had a field day with our State of Education findings on how many children are not ready for the classroom when starting primary school – this being to the tune of almost 200,000. In more than nine in ten schools across primary and secondary, a proportion of pupils join below the expected level.
When we asked primary school leaders what is holding these children back, their view was unanimous: a lack of social skills, delayed speech and poor self-help skills. And for school leaders in the northern regions, these problems are yet more pressing: those in the north west reported the highest levels of pupil unpreparedness, tailed closely by their counterparts in Yorkshire and Humberside, the north east and London.
These findings shed new light on the scale of the task faced by primary teachers, in a sector that is already struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance while also feeling the pressure of adapting to a new primary accountability framework in which (our report tells us) primary leaders appear to have little faith. These strains become ever more burdensome if children are not in a position to learn, and are playing catch-up, from their first day at school.
While the impact on teaching staff is significant, a lack of school-readiness can have real implications for a child’s personal development. Poor communication skills often go hand-in-hand with a lack of self-confidence, resilience and social skills. Behaviour can be affected too: two-thirds of three year-olds with delayed language have behaviour problems. These all contribute to how young people think of themselves as they move up through the school system. And we know that children as young as six are already struggling with their mental health during the pressure points in their school life. Starting from a good foundation and getting the basics right early on, therefore, are important for the wellbeing of the entire school community.
Parents can often find themselves the subject of criticism here, but simply blaming parents isn’t enough to turn these findings around. Parenting certainly has a huge role to play, but while most parents want the very best for their children not all necessarily know what is expected of their child by school-age. Would a clearer definition of 'school-ready' help families to better support children before they start school? Perhaps. But clearer, and more uniform, expectations will only be helpful if they are understood by all parents, including the hard to reach.
I think this is where the health visitor service can really come into play. All families have access to a health visitor during the early years of a child’s life, and can expect five health reviews from late pregnancy to a child’s two-year check. School-readiness is a key focus of these later visits but I wonder how closely schools and health visitor services are working together to deliver these key messages and support all parents to build their children’s social skills and speech development.
Some headteachers we've spoken to at The Key told us that children are more likely to be school-ready if they already have siblings in the school, suggesting that the earlier schools and families can work together the better. These comments point also to the positive impact of children interacting with other children, especially those whose language is more developed.
While the government’s plans to introduce 30 hours of free childcare for working parents will only reach this group, and is not without its critics, we might expect some improvement in school-readiness figures as a result. Early investment seems to reap rewards later and, in turn, can reduce the time that both pupils and teachers spend playing catch-up in the classroom.
Achieving school-readiness, I think, relies on a clear understanding of what it means, and a commitment from families and health and education providers to make it happen. This means it depends also on relationships, and as ever, these relationships between home, health services and early years settings need to be built on a trusting and non-judgemental partnership.