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Reducing Educational Disadvantage

Narrowing or closing the gap has become a hot topic in education. This is perhaps not surprising as it would appear that how well children do both at school and later in their careers is a postcode lottery which reflects parents’ income. Politicians of all persuasions are increasingly becoming concerned that social mobility is at an all-time low. In practical terms this means that the chances of a child from eligible for free school meals getting into a top university and a subsequent top job are pretty slight. The statistics from the Sutton Trust make frightening reading.  In their report to an All Party Parliamentary Group in 2017, they reported that 83% of working age doctors were privately educated or went to grammar schools. They noted that access to higher level jobs within law, the civil service, politics and even in the arts were mainly taken by people from more privileged backgrounds.

So how does early education fit into this? Whilst social mobility is a complex issue, there is a strong consensus that supporting children in their early years can improve educational outcomes for children and therefore can support social mobility. This understanding has resulted in some policy and funding changes in England which include places for some two year olds, a universal offer for 15 hours for three year olds as well as pupil premium funding.

The effectiveness of the funded two year and universal offer for three year olds is now under scrutiny. The treasury no doubt wants to see a return on its investment. Unfortunately, the key measure used, the Early Years Profile is not showing a significant improvement on outcomes for children at risk of disadvantage. This is worrying if you care about children as well as the future of early years in this country. In my experience, if a government does not feel that it is getting results, it is highly likely to look around for a formal, structured scheme or approach. 
Personally, I would prefer for each and every early years setting to find its own way of supporting children at risk of educational disadvantage rather than having a system imposed on from on high. It is with this in mind, that I researched and wrote the book ‘Reducing Education Disadvantage: A strategic approach in the early years’. 

Starting points

Before looking at educational disadvantage, there are a few points to consider. Firstly, it is important not to forget that children can be disadvantaged in many different ways. We should never lose sight that some children may be at risk of emotional disadvantage. Indeed, colleagues in the private sector, often comment that whilst the children that they work with may have high levels of educational attainment, not all will have good levels of emotional well-being. The ideal is, of course, for all children to have both opportunities for education and well-being. 
We also need to remember that whilst there is a focus on low income families, this is a very crude measure to identify children. There will be some children who do not qualify for free school meals who need our additional support whilst others who in theory fall into this category who are achieving well.

School readiness 

The term ‘school readiness’ was coined in the 2011 report ‘Early Intervention: Next Steps’ by Graham Allen. The term has been much maligned. No one likes the thought of a factory system of education where like chickens who become oven ready, a child might become school ready. Whilst I personally, believe that the answer to closing the gap is to increase the age at which children start to read and write, I am a pragmatist. Our current system is ‘one size’ fits all and works like an escalator. Our curriculum is increasingly rigid and so children are taught pretty much the same skills at the same time regardless of whether they are ready. Whilst there are frequent campaigns to change the system, there is no political will to do so on either side of the lobby. It is easy enough to say that every child develops at their own rate and in their own time, but we do not have an education system that builds on this philosophy. Resourced parents can buy in extra help with reading and maths, put pressure on the school or even change schools. Resourced parents will use the internet, seek professional support and throw both money and time to ensure that their children do not fail. Such options for children at risk of disadvantage are not available. Not being ‘school’ ready, equipped with fluent language and self-regulatory skills is a calamity. With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that we may need to work in slightly different ways to support children at risk of disadvantage. 

Using precise assessment

One of the key ways in which we can help children at risk of disadvantage is to accurately assess their levels of development. One of my recommendations is therefore to use traditional milestones as a starting point to assess development, particularly language and physical skills. Starting with these means that it is possible to quickly identify any gaps in development and then to plan accordingly. Consider downloading for free the Solent NHS Early Developmental Checklist

Focusing on the lucky

In order to narrow the gap, I also find it useful to think about what ‘lucky children’ have. Whilst the term ‘lucky’ is clunky and far from perfect, most people know what I mean. These are the children who arrive in the reception class, eager to learn, with strong levels of language and with age appropriate emotional and social behaviours. By identifying, what these lucky children are experiencing, I believe that we can use this as a basis to shape our practice with other children. Whilst all families and children are different, when I ask practitioners about ‘lucky’ children, they universally point out that lucky children have the all or most of the following:

  • Positive adult attention and time
  • Routines and consistency
  • Opportunities to talk 
  • Books and games
  • Being involved in activities in the home such as cooking
  • Visits to local places and outings
  • Opportunities to play

Baby playing cars with daddy.jpgIn addition, some practitioners also note that the parents of ‘lucky’ children also seem confident, well-informed and enjoy their role. 

Time spent with adults

Looking at the list, what is interesting is how many points relate to the role of the adult in supporting children. This is perhaps not surprising as the emotional and language benefits from time spent with a supportive adult are significant. My question to early years settings wishing to improve outcomes for identified children is therefore quite simple: ‘How much time are children with the greatest need spending with?’ 

Narrowing the gap and two year olds

The need for adult time and attention is particularly acute with two year olds. Typically most two year olds will want to be near their parents at all times. This is sometimes known as ‘proximal attachment’. Literally, two year olds will want to be close to their parents or key carers.  In theory, in this very special year, children should move from single or two words through to mini-sentences and questions. This leap in language is best achieved when two year olds have sufficient one to one or one to two interactions with favourite adults. Interestingly, when I ask parents who have young two year olds how much time over a three hour period, is spent in talk, play or entertaining their two year olds, many parents will say that it feels pretty constant. The challenge for settings taking funded two year olds is to replicate this level of language opportunity or get to it as near as possible. 

Using the ratios strategically

In group early years settings, there is a statutory ratio of 1 adult to 4 children. The sector worked hard to defend this ratio a few years ago and in order to support children, we need to use this ratio strategically. Given as we have seen, that most two year olds have a developmental need to be with adults, the trick is to organise so that one adult spends most of the session with ‘their’ four children. I sometimes refer to this as ‘mother ducking’. The idea is that the adult and the child may go to snack together, go outdoors to sweep up or move over to the sand tray together. This way of working is highly effective as it pretty much ensure constant opportunities for play and interaction between the adult and ‘their’ children. Where settings have tried this approach for some of their session, they have noticed that the two year olds are more engaged with activity and also with the adult. Practitioners also comment on how much easier it is to understand ‘their children’ as one of the typical features of toddlers is that they can be very hard to understand unless you have spent many hours with them tuning in. It is particularly important to consider this way of working for some of the session, if two year old and three year olds are together and where the combined ratio may actually be closer to 1:6. 


Children reading .jpgAn often overlooked way in which outcomes for children’s language can be improved is through sharing books. Many children at risk of disadvantage do not get 1-1 time with an adult and a book. This is in contrast with ‘lucky’ children who often have daily opportunities to cuddle up to an adult and focus on a book. I calculated that some ‘lucky’ children start the reception class having had 6,000 1-1 story or book experiences with a favourite adult. Some children at risk of disadvantage may only have experienced a group story and so have not ‘pored’ over text or images and learnt about the magic of a book. Whilst as a sector we have been rightly focused on play in our planning, for children at risk of disadvantage, we should also be planning their ‘next steps’ around books. Books are a fantastic way of building vocabulary as well as developing an interest in learning to read. 


I also suggest that settings think also about the experiences that ‘lucky’ children have with adults. These may include opportunities to cook, garden or to come alongside adults as they clean, shop or prepare food. Lucky children also get opportunities to visit museums, places of interest and even hear live music. In effect these are all adult-directed activities that build children’s knowledge, skills and language. Interestingly, children who have had rich and varied experiences bring this into their play and develop interests accordingly.  It is therefore worth settings creating long term plans that in some ways create a ‘journey of experiences’. This might include outings, visitors as well as activities within the setting including caring for a pet, cooking and gardening.

Introducing children to new ways of playing

Finally, whilst child-initiated play is a cornerstone of current early years practice, it is important to think about whether some groups of children are able to access all types of play. Children at risk of disadvantage may not have played simple games such as snap, picture lotto or board games. They may not know what to do with a jigsaw, play with dough or how to enjoy being in the role play area. Some children may not have the language needed for some play activities. This means that when it comes to accessing child initiated play, their options may be limited. Ideally, some adult directed activities need to be planned that help children be introduced to new materials and ways of playing so that their repertoire can be expanded. In this way, their opportunities to access child initiated play can become more fulfilling.


Tassoni P. 2016 Reducing Educational Disadvantage: A Strategic Approach in the Early Years A&C Black Advantage

Penny Tassoni
Penny Tassoni is an education consultant, author and trainer who specialises in the whole spectrum of learning and play. Penny began her career as an early years teacher, before training nursery nurses. She has also worked for a large daycare chain as their education and training manager. Penny has written forty books many of which are core textbooks in the UK for training nursery nurses and early years teachers. In February 2013, she was asked to take on the role of President of the Professional Association of Early Years and Childcare - an organisation with over 35,000 members in the UK. Penny is a well known speaker and trainer. She regularly visits and supports nurseries and pre-schools which allows her to maintain regular contact with babies and young children.

Edited by Rebecca

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