an article in today’s Guardian newspaper reports that according to a report published by Sir Michael Marmot’s Institute of Health Equity at University College London, 50% of children leaving Reception and starting in Year 1 are “not ready for school”. According to Marmot “The UK scores badly on children’s development compared with the other wealthy nations of the world” and he also points out that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than those from affluent homes to fall short of the developmental and educational milestones set down by the Department for Education.
Marmot criticises the Conservative coalition for closing down SureStart centres claiming that it is “not a good way to improve early childhood development”. While the closure of SureStart and the Government changing the way that it collects data, there is another which significantly affects young children’s readiness for formal schooling. It is one that crosses all social classes but possibly impacts less on children from more affluent homes.
Since the expansion of state funded nursery education in the late 1990’s there has been a fundamental shift in the admissions arrangements for children in England which has resulted in the country having what is effectively the lowest starting school age in the world. While children do not legally have to be in school until the term after their fifth birthday the reality is that almost all children now start in Reception at the start of the year in which the become five. This has resulted in children being admitted to Reception classes as young as four years old, where they are educated alongside children a whole year older. Frequently little account is taken of this age difference (highly significant in developmental terms) as they are all treated more or less the same and are required to reach the same set of goals which have been set down by the Government. It is hardly surprising that at the end of the year the now five year-olds are more heavily represented in the lower 1-3 band than their six year-old peers from the same class.
A knock on impact of this is that nursery schools and classes have become largely devoid of four to five year-olds who have in the past acted as scaffolders and role models for younger children. These older children have been removed from the developmentally appropriate learning environments where there has been a high focus on their personal, social and emotional development and physical needs (the very things Marmot says they are lacking) and placed in Reception classes, too many of which have adopted the factory model of education so prevalent in key Stage 1 and 2.
While parent’s can (if they know and choose to do so) insist that their children stay in the nursery environment until they reach statutory school age. However, this is hard to achieve, even if you are an articulate, well-informed middle class parent threatened with the prospect of your child going straight from Nursery into Year 1. How much harder then for those parents with the least social capital.
If we really want to do the best for all young children, but particularly those who are from the most disadvantaged sections of society there are a number of things that need to be done:
- Improve the quality of experience of young children in both nursery and reception by making sure that they all have access to high quality, developmentally appropriate provision.
- Make sure that all teachers working in nursery and reception classes are specialists who have an in-depth understanding of early yeas pedagogy and that they are supported by equally well trained, specialist co-workers.
- Raise the statutory starting school age, bringing England into line with the rest of Europe.
- Make sure that when children start school the schools are ready for them rather than making them fit, like square pegs into a round hole.
- Protect the funding and future of maintained Nursery Schools which have been consistently been shown by EPPE and other studies to provide the best possible foundation for life for children, regardless of social background.