How do you judge when a child is ‘school ready’?

Lancashire County Council says it has undergone a cultural change in its approach to pre-school education and helping families. Yet nearly a third of county youngsters are judged to be lacking key skills at a crucial early stage. Fiona Finch reports.

Can your child tie their shoelaces? Can your child sit still and concentrate, listen to other children, play well, have good table manners and show care for others?

There are a myriad of concerns as families and carers prepare youngsters for the step up to big school and all sorts of skills which need building.

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But statistics show that in Lancashire nearly a third of youngsters have not reached the national benchmark of school ready attainment by the time they move up from reception.

Edwina Grant, Lancashire County Council’s executive director for education and children’s services

It is not a figure that Lancashire County Council is happy about, as Edwina Grant, Lancashire County Council’s executive director for education and children’s services makes clear.

But she notes that while across the North West the school ready figure stands is 67 per cent, in Lancashire it is 69 per cent and her service is working to raise that. She is mindful too that Lancashire is two per cent behind its “statistical neighbours” - that is comparable authorities with similar needs and demographics.

Edwina said: “It’s something we’re monitoring closely because part of our vision is we want all children to reach their full potential. We’re two points behind but we want to be better than that.”

She explains that being “school ready” means youngsters are ready to access the full curriculum at the end of the Early Years Foundation stage.

Sasha Walker-Byrne , chair of Lancashire's maintained nurseries group and head of Fairfield Nursery School, Accrington

The goals assessed include communication and language skills, personal, social and emotional development, literacy and mathematical skills.

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But it is an inexact science - skills emerge and develop at different rates. Some youngsters will meet and some exceed the expected development levels.

Some will have been assessed in their second language, some will have access to outdoor learning and a rural environment, others not, some will have special educational needs and so on and some will, as the very youngest in their years, have simply had less time to develop skills.

Edwina continued: “What are we doing about it? We’ve a range of support for parents and providers. We’re starting to work to provide a network of support for people in their area, support in accordance with what the needs are. We also do a lot of support for teachers.”

Happy and healthy snack time at Fairfield Nursery School, Accrington
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Edwina believes the county has huge potential to do even better because “as a county we’ve got really good Ofsted (Government inspection) grades, 98 % of our providers of early years provision are good or outstanding.”

In addition in the county she says there is a 93 per cent take up of free child places and 94 per cent in areas of high deprivation. Provision across the county varies with youngsters attending nursery schools run by private providers or the county council. Some nursery classes are attached to schools, others are stand alone.

Edwina said: “We want them in at (the age of) two if they need it. We want to be working all the time so that by the time they access the national curriculum they are ready. We want to get in early and help parents and support them in helping children develop. We’re here to help. The whole approach right across children’s services now is what can we do for you to help you be the very best parent you want to be or can be. Every parent wants that for their children.

"If we can support that Early Years foundation stage that bodes so well for the future. We work on things they need to get school ready. The 30 per cent who have not reached it yet have not failed anything - they’ve not reached it yet. Each child is an individual.”

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She stresses positive reinforcement of achievements makes parents proud of their youngsters, with a focus on even the tiniest goals reached each day, rather than what has not been achieved. She said: “Everybody wants to chase better performance - it’s so crucial to be able to access the rest of the curriculum. That’s why we need to get this right.”

Edwina points out that if youngsters are behind the expected performance at the end of reception the learning gaps may grow rather than narrow, impacting on future life chances and opportunities. She added: “We want the best possible outcomes. I think it’s massively positive the fact we’re getting this approach to support our families, I’m optimistic.”

Sasha Walker-Byrne, chair of the maintained nurseries group in the county and also head at Fairfield Nursery School, Accrington, believes that nationally there needs to be more targeted investment in nursery education, so that funds fully meet children’s development needs and parents should not be “demonised” for children’s perceived lack of skills. She said: "It’s a big issue across the country that we need to be uplifting funding for Early Years education."

Sasha is also passionate about calling for a broader understanding and appreciation of a child’s attainment. She said: “It’s at the end of reception, at the end of the Early Years Foundation stage and it’s a measure for Government to track those two years. For me as a head I feel it’s not a fair measure or a fair judgement. If I look at our children, most of our children start here the term after their second birthday.I think when they come into us and the journey they make for me it’s the progress we should be measuring. I look at many of the barriers our children have overcome. That good level of development e.g. in languages and communication. Children have to be measured in English many of my children are amazing because they are bilingual speakers but they are not measured in their mother tongue. But they are being measured in another language they may only have been speaking for a year. It can’t be a fair measure, they are already at a disadvantage.”

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As for helping children develop their skills she said: “Keep on talking with them and make them feel loved and listened to. It takes time to listen. They want to tell you a story.”

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