School readiness – still an issue for children, parents, providers and schools

In early years we have been familiar with this term, ‘school readiness’, for a little while now. Perhaps far too long. I wrote this piece in 2014 for the Nursery World website, after Ofsted published Are you ready? Good Practice in School Readiness. Today, I have revisited it. I needed to, as the issue remains unresolved.

School readiness is one of many aims of early learning for preschool children. One of many aims, did you notice? We aim to ensure that as children join us at age one, two or three, we equip them in their transition into school and into their childhoods and adulthoods. We often share a child’s first experiences of being separated from their parents, interacting with non-family member adults, taking turns, and making new friends. We can introduce families to books, positive behaviours and self-regulation, and safe boundaries and risk-taking, and a whole range of new opportunities socially, educationally and economically.

The term emerged from various reviews, guidance, and training modules including and significantly: the Allen Report (2011) on early intervention, and the Tickell Report (2011) that looked at reviewing the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and used the term school ‘unreadiness’. There is no clear and agreed definition though. Shared understanding and agreement here would be a uniting force for partnership between early years and schools. This is something we still need.

If school readiness means we support children to develop their key skills in communication, speaking, listening and questioning, social and emotional well-being, and physical development, then count me in. If it is about producing learning robots trained to comply with a rigid and inflexible education system, then I am less keen on the idea. This is my quote and was included in The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years (Jarvis et al 2016). Yes, we must do our bit, but the mantle should be taken on by later educators in ways that are individualised, sensitive, inclusive and enabling. In early years we are not mechanical production lines churning out identical school-ready children like ready-meals prepared for the oven.

Ofsted agreed, somewhat, their report said “children require high quality provision and individualised support”. All types of provision should remember this and individualise their approaches. One size never fit all.

My argument is that school readiness is a partnership, and not just the ‘job’ of the early years sector, it is one that is best achieved by parents, providers, partners and schools. I fear our sector is often judged or singled-out to blame if a child doesn’t conform to the norm when arriving at schools for the first time. And on that matter, schools need to have child-readiness for working with young children and their families. It’s a two-way thing. This is all the more important now children have experienced lockdown and the effects of the pandemic. They haven’t missed out and need to catch up, they need to be supported to make sense of what has and is happening and convert these unique learning experiences into resilience and skills necessary for their successful studies, social and working lives.

What parents and carers do on a daily basis to support their children’s learning is not only important – it is essential. Even for our most frequent and long-term users of early learning, their most significant influence is their parenting. And as a sector, we should feel proud of how we engage and include parents into our services. And the ways in which we support home learning. I am pleased to see this has an ever-increasing focus across many programmes and projects, Hungry Little Minds included. However, we should not be complacent, we can always do more. So often I meet children who have low confidence, untapped potential in language and learning, and I see this replicated in their parents. Our role, in all children’s services, including schools, is to support parents to achieve their full potential too. And we do. By providing our services, we offer parents opportunities to grow and develop, learn and work, build self-esteem and confidence, and improve their and their family’s communication skills. These all contribute to a school readiness for parents. School ready parents are much more confident to engage with school and able to feel included and respected in their communities. They will also be best placed to support those vitally important periods of transition as well.

Partnerships with other settings acknowledge that children may attend two or more provisions. And specialist interventions such as speech and language therapy also offer other inputs. They help to inform assessments, recommendations and effective transitions for individual children. Initial assessments must effectively and efficiently identify a child’s starting point. Accuracy and quality here buys us the time we need to develop and individualise development programmes for all children, and drive our work in partnership with other services and professionals that offer a specialist perspective.

There are opportunities for us to balance the use of child-led and adult-led sessions. If a child becomes used to participating and enjoying adult-led learning activities, they will be ready to engage with this when it is presented to them in school. Not forgetting that it is child led activities that allow children to become independent learners, explorers and individuals, and this is of equal value to me, and something that needs to be reflected more in the school day. This is because learning in later school years, and certainly in FE and HE sectors is structured in this way. Research shows how beneficial to language development it is for children if adults around them (early years workers and parents or carers) speak clearly to children and offer opportunities to speak, be imaginative, construct sentences and ask questions. Research has shown that least advantaged children are likely to hear much fewer spoken words in their early years than their peers (Hart & Risley (1995).

We still need to agree and share a definition, one that encompasses the multi-sided nature of school readiness, one that includes children, parents and their schools. And in the meantime, let’s make sure we build in some of these principles into our everyday practice in early years.

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