School readiness is a familiar term in early years and primary education, but its meaning and implications for policy and practice is frequently debated. With examples from a range of settings, this article examines a positive, child-centred approach to school readiness as well as some of the concerns.
Going to school is probably one of the biggest transitions a young child will make during their early years, but what does it mean to be ‘ready for school’, and how might we best support this? Reflecting on my own experience as a playgroup leader, being ready to start school meant working with our families to support their children to develop some straightforward practical and social skills. This included:
· Coping with simple clothes and easy-to-fasten shoes (we also asked families to provide slip-on or Velcro-strap slippers to practice this further in the setting)
· Sitting together for a short while - for example listening to a story, or taking part in an adult-guided activity
· Eating a meal in a small group, and trying new foods or flavours
· Joining in or initiating a variety of play experiences
· Talking with other children, chatting to an adult other than their parent or carer
· Singing songs and rhymes
Since then, school readiness has taken on far more significance. Data from the early years foundation stage profile results (in England) is used by the Department for Education to monitor changes in children’s levels of development, and also to define 'school readiness'. A child is judged to be ready for school at the end of their reception year if they have reached a ‘good level of development’ (GLD). That is, they have achieved the expected level for the twelve early learning goals in the prime areas (personal, social and emotional, communication and language and physical development), and in the specific areas of mathematics and literacy (DfE 2018). In addition, a phonics screening check has been introduced in Year One, there is a proposed new baseline assessment planned for 2020, and the revised early learning goals are currently being trialled in 25 schools across the country.
For children living in socioeconomically deprived conditions, where parents may be caught in financial and emotional stress, or for those children who are summer-born and almost a year younger, reaching a GLD may be problematic and developmentally inappropriate. Furthermore, some of the early learning goals, such as the goal for writing, are considered by many to be too difficult. Some children, particularly boys, whose fine-motor skills may not yet be fully developed, may struggle to reach this.
With the aim of supporting families in the greatest need, the resulting cuts and the closure of over 1000 children’s centres since 2009 has been devastating. Most worrying of all, numbers using children’s centres are falling more quickly in areas of deprivation. School readiness skills grow gradually over time, so, attending a children’s centre that facilitates song and rhyme sessions amongst other things, will support children’s communication and language. This will help to build a good working vocabulary which in turn will support reading skills.
Rebecca Swindells, nursery manager at Blue Door Nursery in Seaford reflects on the importance of cultivating these early school readiness skills: “We have high expectations right from the start, so when children begin nursery, we support them to develop their listening and turn-taking skills. For example, during small group times they share news and learn to respect each other’s points of view. We also encourage a strong spirit of curiosity, and reassure parents that playing with their child and sharing their interests from home has real benefits. The good relationship with our local primary school has enabled us to discuss how to best support a child’s start to school. During the summer term we ask our families to bring in the school PE kit (or a pair of shorts and Tee-shirt), and the children practice getting changed, putting their clothes and shoes together, and going outside to play. Taking responsibility for their belongings develops their self-care skills and raises self-esteem, and the reception teacher really appreciates that we prepare children in this way. It also means that if things go missing, they are much easier to find in the nursery rather than a busy Reception class where everyone is wearing the same thing! During the summer term, we also introduce some of the terminology that children might hear at school, such as ‘time to line up’ or ‘taking the register’ etc, and we role-play these routines. A real plus is investing time for one of our team to visit the school with children and parents, and again about six to seven weeks into the first term, so that any problems can be ironed-out quickly.”
The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage (EYFS 2017), describes school readiness as ‘giving children the broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life’. It also states that working in partnership with parents and carers, and holding a focus on the prime areas of learning (personal, social and emotional, communication and language and physical development) is essential to supporting children to become ready for school (1.1 and 1.6 p 7-9).
This would seem to inspire the idea that an inclusive approach to being ready for school, illustrated in the example above, is the way forward. If children’s well-being and a positive experience of transitions is placed at the heart of this process, then everyone has an important part to play. This is outlined in Unicef’s School Readiness document, with an emphasis on the interaction between these three domains:
· A child’s readiness for school affects their learning and development.
· An early years setting’s or school’s readiness focuses on an enabling, child-centred environment that supports smooth transitions, and recognises and responds to the diverse needs of children and families.
· The families’ readiness for school encourages a positive attitude and involvement in their child’s learning and transition to school (Unicef 2012).
A ‘broad range of knowledge and skills’ may mean different things depending on your perspective and priorities. A limited viewpoint might suggest a more academic or cognitive focus, rather than a holistic view of school-readiness that includes positive attitudes to learning, such as curiosity, creativity and persistence. In the PACEY report (2013), 97% of childcare professionals agreed that the term ‘school readiness’ should be defined as children who:
• can cope emotionally with being separated from their parents
• are relatively independent in their own personal care
• have a curiosity about the world and a desire to learn
In her childminding practice, Adele Findell recognises the value of nurturing children’s positive characteristics, in particular their self-confidence, as a key way of supporting school readiness: “I’ve been doing lots of activities to further develop the children’s personal, social and emotional skills. For example, we have been exploring friendships, and as well as acknowledging ‘special friends’, I’ve provided opportunities for the children to get to know everyone in the group. Playing games with simple rules has given the children the chance to practice turn-taking and problem-solving, and we’ve also made our own ‘Ready for School’ book. This includes photographs from a recent visit to our local primary school, where we met and chatted to children in Reception and looked at their uniforms. This has really helped with the children’s confidence and understanding about what school is going to be like.”
Receiving new children into your setting or class may also be slightly daunting. It would make sense to take time to settle children in well and not rush this important process. Thoughtful, child-centred systems such as a staggered entry and shorter days can really help, as can listening to children’s and families’ voices. The following children and parent shared their experiences:
Alice, now 18 years old: “I remember being really nervous. There were so many people, but there was one girl who was wearing the same skirt as me and this made me really happy; our friendship lasted all through primary. I liked playing outdoors in the big cars and there was a lovely tin of colourful beads in the classroom – one of my friends used to sneak some home in her pocket, she loved them so much. Story time on the carpet made me feel safe – being altogether and getting lost in the book. We all decorated paper rockets and our teacher added our photo, and if it was our birthday, the rocket would fly up on the display which was very exciting. I loved bringing my teddy into school, and we got to paint their pictures. I still recall the feeling of pride when I was asked to hang my painting on the wall.”
What helped you settle into Reception?
“The lovely teachers and how kind they were. Getting to visit my class before with my mum.”
What about going into Year One?
“Going to visit our new classroom and meeting N, he is very funny (her teacher this year).”
What could have made it better or more fun?
“Having a party with the whole school, teachers and kids. Also doing more maths, ‘cause I love maths.”
Anything else that would help reception children now that you are going to Year One?
“To play with them in the playground and show them fun games.”
BB, now 10 years old remembers: “I was very nervous going to Reception as I didn’t know anyone, but I liked painting as there were always other children there. I also liked it when the teacher took my hand, or asked me to do a job in the morning when I was worried about leaving my mum. I also liked the school’s friendship bench - you sit there if you don’t have anyone to play with and children come and see if you want to play.”
Cool-bag Squishy and BB’s mum also reflected on her experience: “I loved that the school did half days for a week, then more half days plus lunch for a week, so it was fairly gentle. The first topic was ‘All About Me’ which really helped as the class filled with lots of family photos and stories of home.”
Annette Long, headteacher at Moss Hall Nursery School, highlights the importance of reassuring children and parents and building resilience to support school readiness: “We contact all our feeder schools and where possible, set up visits between the school, our children and their key person. We also make a book using a simple template and ask permission to take photographs of different areas in the school, i.e. the outdoor area, classroom, office or first-aid room. This allows both children and parents to familiarise themselves with what the new school looks like. The Reception teacher at our closest link school was very keen to do this with us. The characteristics of effective learning are crucial, building flexibility and a child’s self-belief and willingness to ‘have a go’, and to know that they are OK if something doesn’t work out. Children’s thinking and independence is encouraged, i.e. during meal times and self-care routines. This was highlighted when a child returned from a recent visit and said with outrage: ‘They pour the water for you! Don’t they know we’re five?!’”
Practical ideas to support children’s school-readiness:
· Could a local primary school donate school uniform to support imaginative-play?
· If parents and carers have regular questions about starting school, could these be collated into a helpful booklet (for both nursery and the new school)?
· Are children gradually introduced to new experiences, for example, going to assembly, playing in a large playground, staying for lunch? Does this need to be reviewed and improved?
· As all the case studies have suggested, a visit to the next school or setting is invaluable. Where possible, take photographs and create a simple book about the experience.
· You might like to create a ‘picture postcard’ as a reminder of helpful things to practice in the weeks leading up to going to school, i.e. ‘putting on my own coat; going to the loo by myself; pulling up my sleeves to wash my hands and blowing my nose’.
· Use the local library as a resource to hunt out some good children’s books about starting school.
Although it might be tempting to push for an overly academic school readiness agenda (in the mistaken belief that this will increase outcomes or assessment scores, see Bingham and Whitebread 2012, below), many practitioners, head-teachers, children and parents are advocating for a more child-centred approach. School readiness is about every aspect of a child’s development, not just the ability to land in the school classroom and immediately begin to soak up knowledge. If these early beginnings are rushed or handled insensitively, fear and anxiety may shut down a child’s natural, healthy impulses to make relationships, engage and learn. Making the new school environment interesting yet reassuring, as well as appropriately challenging will help children settle into their new surroundings, and continue the exciting process of learning and development.
With thanks to all the practitioners, settings and headteachers, and especially the children and parents who contributed to this piece.
Helpful resources and further reading:
· Free online course with Open University – register for free to access Listening to Young Children: supporting transition
· PACEY – Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years resources for practitioners and parents
· Ready, Steady, Starting School! A practical guide to promoting and nurturing young children’s learning (2019) by Anne Gladstone and Gaynor Rice
· School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning: The Essential Guide for Early Years Practitioners (2018) by Tamsin Grimmer
· School Readiness, a critical review of perspectives and evidence, a TACTYC Research Publication (2012) by Sue Bingham and David Whitebread
Edited by Jules