In a recent NAHT survey of Heads, 83% said that Reception-age children are not ready for school. The report suggests that this is due to a lack of early years input: it was found that those who had little preparation in the early years are the most delayed. Whilst there is no doubt that a solid foundation is important when children start school, three questions should be asked in response to the paper.
1. What is the right age to start school?
The report does ask the question about what ‘school readiness’ actually means, but another question should be asked: is rising 5 the right age to start compulsory, academic education? In Finland and Sweden children don’t start schooling until the age of 7. In Switzerland, children can only attend school part time until 7: this keeps them at home with their families for longer. Some studies have even shown that a play-based start increases the chances of later success. Why then do we continue with this obsession over starting a such a young age? In our four schools our teachers do a brilliant job at integrating play-based learning into the curriculum, but I know that they sometimes struggle to balance this with the necessity of getting the basics right.
2. How much impact has immigration had on these figures?
Another issue that seems glossed over: the rise in immigration. One in three primary aged pupils is now from an ethnic minority background. However, with the right level of early-stage input, children of this age pick up new languages quickly. In addition, greater racial diversity can be good for schools: a report by Bristol University has shown that schools with a more diverse racial profile do better at GCSEs than more homogeneous schools. That said, a funding commitment is needed to ensure schools have enough specialised input to ensure EAL speakers have the support they need to catch up with their first language peers.
3. And what of the impact of smartphones on communication?
Another cause of this delay might well be resting in your hand as you read this: the rise of smartphone use and its impact on communication at every level. Whenever I’m at the playground with my son I’ll see mums and dads on their phones rather than interacting with their kids. I leave my phone at home when I’m with my son as I know that I’d do the same otherwise. Are parents simply communicating less with their children? I also see more and more little ones plugged into digital baby sitters. That cannot be good for their development.
A friend of mine teaches at a primary school. She told me recently that she’d seen a mum run her own child over with a buggy as she was so engrossed in her phone. The kid had fallen out of the buggy and the woman had carried on walking. Here’s hoping she didn’t actually stand on her child.
Whilst the report makes for sobering reading, I think the debate ranges wider than it suggests. We need now to examine every factor that influences ‘school readiness’, including whether children anywhere in the world can be truly ready for school at such a tender age.