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Why school readiness needs to be on our radar

| 7 minute read
60 ARTICLE Kindred v2

1 in 4 children who start school are not toilet trained, according to a new survey by charitable foundation, Kindred²

Felicity Gillespie

It says this lack of school readiness should be at the forefront of all of our minds, whether we volunteer in the early years or not. This is because it’s a key factor in predicting educational and other outcomes in later life.

CEO Felicity Gillespie says the Kindred² school readiness survey 2024 reveals this is worsening year on year and urgently needs to be addressed.

We caught up with Felicity to learn more about the recent findings and why this issue needs to be on the radar of governors and trustees.

Firstly, please can you tell us a bit about Kindred²?

We are a charitable foundation and our focus is raising public awareness about the importance of the early years. The early years are the foundation of all of life and yet this is not something that’s well understood by the general public. Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is developing fastest in its first year and that those first 2 years of life are utterly critical as a foundation for later life. For instance, a child’s development at 22 months is an accurate predictor of their educational attainment when they’re 26 years old. 40% of the attainment gap we see at 16 years old is already evident at 5 years old. So, if you’re behind when you start school at 5 years old, the chances are you’re going to struggle to catch up.

And yet as a society there is a lack of understanding about the importance of the early years which we see amongst some parents and which subsequently has a huge impact on the number that are getting their children ready for the classroom.

You recently surveyed over 1,000 teachers and 1,000 parents of reception children for your annual school readiness survey. What did you find out?

We looked at the 2023 cohort of young children when they started in September and this is the 4th year we’ve run this survey. 50% of teachers said the situation was worse than it had been the year before. On average, 1 in 4 children are starting school not toilet trained. 1 in 3 are starting school unable to feed themselves or get dressed independently and sadly the survey also found that 28% of children don’t know how to use a book; when they’re given a picture book, instead of turning the pages - they swipe it like a screen.

We also heard from parents and learnt that many are finding out about school readiness too late. 43% of parents said they first learnt about school readiness when their child turned 4. 

The survey also showed that, on average, reception teachers are spending 2 and a half hours a day supporting children who’re not yet ready to learn in a classroom setting which has a knock on effect on the teaching time available for all of the other children in a class. It also has a big impact on the school’s budget and the stress levels of teachers.

Why do you think this is happening?

I think that as a nation, we’ve simply allowed it. We judge our politicians by what they say on what’s considered ‘real education’ and by that I mean schools and higher education. But few politicians talk about their ambitions for the early years and the rising number of children who start school developmentally delayed. 

Having said that, it’s not a government problem, it's all of our problem. Ultimately, as a nation, we are not focusing a sufficient proportion of our resources, whether that’s time, money or attention, on these early years. Our focus is elsewhere as we don’t really think it’s as important. It’s funny that our system talks about Key Stage 1 in education starting at 5 years old when all of the science tells us that the most important years are before 5.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently looked at the effect of Sure Start on academic outcomes, finding large benefits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Would you welcome a return of a programme like this to support families with children un

The data from the IFS is fascinating but multi-layered.  Certainly the study shows that local, linked-up provision of family support focused on the needs of the whole child particularly helps the most disadvantaged families.  And there’s more evidence of how the right support in the early years impacts later life outcomes.  The report is a really important contribution to the policy debate and the timing of it will hopefully inform thinking across the political spectrum.

Is there standard data we collect at that entry point about school readiness that governors should be aware of?

The first key bit of data collected for children is the ‘good level of development’ measure, part of the EYFS framework, which is assessed at the end of reception. But that’s not the first day of school if you were to ask parents. They would show you the photo they took of their child in squeaky clean uniform and brand new book bag outside their house on their first morning at school in reception.

You can have as many measures as you like, but really we’ve got to change the public conversation. This isn’t a north of England problem or a south of England problem, a poor problem or a rich problem - it’s a national problem of a scale where a conversation about parenting is what we need to be engaging in.

Can you imagine if there had been a 40% reduction in the number of teachers available since 2015? You’d most likely vote that government out and there’d be a national outcry but 40% of health visitors have disappeared since 2015*. Health visitors are critical as they are the first universal service around the family, around children. They are the first people who can start to talk about developmental milestones and can ask parents,  ‘Are you talking to your baby, are you making eye contact with your baby?’. It’s those basic developmental building blocks that are the precursor to being toilet trained, being able to sit on the mat and knowing how to use a book.

School readiness isn’t a 6 week programme before a child starts school. You don’t make up for a developmental delay in the 6 weeks before a child starts school. It’s something you develop from birth because we are all learners from birth, that’s when our brains are doing the hard wiring that underpins all of our later learning.

I bet most governors in secondary settings could tell you what their KS4 data looks like.  Or those in primary schools could tell you what their KS2 data looks like. How many can tell you what proportion of children are entering reception  developmentally behind?

I was talking to a headteacher last week about it and she explained that she thought our survey data was inaccurate. In her trust,  they’d run our survey across all teachers in reception and found the number who were behind the curve and not developmentally ready to be 74%. That’s a huge number. The fact is we just simply don’t talk about it enough.

What can governors do to support schools to address this issue, particularly when schools are facing such a challenging time in terms of budgets, provision for special needs and staff recruitment and retention?

I think the very fact of governors talking about it will help to change the conversation. As well as asking about other progress data, track the progress that’s being made in reception. Is your primary school prioritising the catch up needs of children who weren’t ready to start school, such that by the time they get to Year 1, they’ve caught up to a degree. Plus are we as school communities having this conversation with parents? The children entering reception are likely to have siblings coming along behind. Most schools are already communicating to their families. 

To be honest, I don’t think this is something schools alone should be left to fix. I know many schools are currently doing a huge amount to address these issues.  Some schools are developing special hubs to support these children who are developmentally behind. There was a school I spoke to recently where every day, the children start with some ‘tummy time’. It’s what we do with babies at 9 months old to build their core strength. This school said that many of their pupils don’t have the core strength needed to sit up in class and learn and that’s why they’d started the intervention.

If governors and trustees are informed about this issue  - it’s another part of the population that will be better informed. For every pound we invest in the early years it saves us £13 in later interventions as a society so the early years is the right time to invest in our children.

I’d urge governors and trustees to talk about it at the next board meeting. Ask what’s happening in reception, what the issues are, how staff are being supported. An EYFS governor is not a statutory role but we’d argue it’s necessary to support schools to address these issues.

If the school has a nursery, there’s a whole other set of potential opportunities for working with families before reception too. There’s a huge amount that can be done but a starting point is just to get people aware about this issue. 

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  • Marion Leeper 28 Apr 2024, 14:29 (22 days ago)

    As a primary school governor I really welcome this report on the under-investment in early years education, the impossible task facing under-funded early years settings and the lack of funding for initiatives carrying on the work of Sure Start.
    I do worry about the tone of some of the article, the assumption that schools and health professionals know better than parents and that if children aren't ready for school it's the parents' fault. When I was working as an early years teacher, I knew that children would always learn and develop better if I accepted parents as experts on their own child, listened genuinely to their views, and worked with the child at the point they were at. To ask, not 'are the children ready for school?' but 'is the school ready for the children?'

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  • Claire 25 Apr 2024, 20:46 (24 days ago)

    One of the areas we are missing is actually pre-birth. Ante-natal classes have been massively cut due to budgets, so they can now only just cover the actual birth and how to change a nappy.
    What is desperately needed is sessions that Hove parents easy and accessible ways to introduce good practices. To let them become friends with other parents so they are not isolated (even children playing next to other children is a good learning experience), where they can access free groups including local library story times. Making parents feel like they are and will be successful instead of lectured.

    As a second tome Mum with a mobility disorder (invisible) I was lectured on how I was doing things wrong with my young baby by the health visitor. As a teacher, second time Mum, and fairly self-confident, I was able to ignore and carry on the only physical way I could (and don't worry it was still safe, and supported by other medical staff, and were the techniques taight to me by the HV for my first child). What did concern me was that somebody who did need the help and support to get things right would actually hide from support for fear of a lecture that they were failing.
    The reality is that the HV was probably overworked and had no capacity left for diplomacy or research or conversation. But this support does need to come earlier, it also needs to be chased. If somebody doesn't turn up to a toddler check up, that child falls off anyone's radar till school.

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  • Elaine Beaumont 25 Apr 2024, 11:31 (25 days ago)

    Hi, as a Children's Librarian, I have worked with Bookstart supported by the local health visitors and Sure Start programmes in library settings. One of the worst comments I overheard was a grandmother saying that she didn't see the point to all this - "they go to school to learn to read". As this article points out we are dealing with generations of ignorance and missed opportunities. Even before birth, we (men included) should be mindful of what we need to offer as parents. Being a parent isn't just pregnancy and birth but the development of the Future. It is shocking to see how instead of songs and games - spotting things from the car windows; children are watching screens. The same in pushchairs and elsewhere. I have serious concerns about the communication skills of young people - ok so covid didn't help with the isolation and mask wearing but are we sleep-walking into a silent world with everyone on their devices with ear plugs. We don't allow creativity as AI and other technology can do it for us and children are swiping right on book covers because they have never been shown how to handle a book. This is not a new phenomenon, when my (now 31) son joined his nursery class, the teacher commented that she could tell he came from a literate household as many of his classmates didn't understand how books 'worked'. Surestart wasn't perfect but it was an effort towards educating parents that were holding their children back - sometimes unwittingly. Remembering of course that these parents, or even grandparents, may only be a few steps ahead of their children. Working with nursery classes back in the 1990's, it is a sad indictment that the gap I witnessed then across those children has not only grown but that the less prepared have deteriorated further. This topic has been raised at the school I am connected with and I am sure it will be discussed again in future but with budgets constantly being stretched, how are we to engage with parents of children who aren't yet our responsibility?

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  • Gemma Hawkins 25 Apr 2024, 10:34 (25 days ago)

    Absolutely, it is certain that EYFS needs ever more attention !
    The brain begins to develop at the beginning of life but requirements for school, aside from toilet usage include core strength that makes it possible for a child to sut for the duration of a lesson!

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  • Judith Castledine 25 Apr 2024, 08:52 (25 days ago)

    This is a really interesting article, thank you. I'll take some of the suggested questions to our next LGB meeting.

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  • Debra 25 Apr 2024, 07:05 (25 days ago)

    This is a problem I have been concerned about for some time. I’ve noticed the changes in children’s school readiness over a period of over 20 years working in EYFS and KS 1. I wholeheartedly agree that it is time this was highlighted and addressed.

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