What is the key to school-readiness?

Written by: Amy Cook | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Recent research reveals that almost a third of children are not considered ready for the classroom when they start primary school. But what does this mean for schools? Amy Cook takes a closer look at ‘school-readiness’, exploring the implications of the problem and some possible solutions

The Key’s 2016 State of Education Report shed new light on the scale of the task faced by schools, revealing that almost 200,000 children are not “school-ready” when starting in primary settings.

Furthermore, the report, which is based on the views of more than 1,100 school leaders, explains that a proportion of pupils are below the expected level on first arrival in more than nine in 10 primary and secondary schools.

When we asked primary school leaders what is holding these children back, their view was unanimous: lack of social skills, delayed speech and poor self-help skills.

And the problem is most pressing for school leaders in the North of England: those in the North West reported the highest levels of pupil unpreparedness, followed closely by Yorkshire and Humberside, the North East and then London.

Ready, steady, go? Illustrations from the State of Education Report 2016 showing some of the findings on school-readiness (Illustrations: State of Education Report 2016/The Key)

What impact does this have on teachers?

These findings paint a worrying picture for a sector that is already struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance, while also feeling the pressure of adapting to a new primary accountability framework – which, the report tells us, primary leaders have little faith in. Such strains become even more burdensome if children are not in a position to learn, and are playing catch-up from day one.

How does poor school-readiness affect pupils?

A lack of school-readiness can have real implications for a child’s personal development. Poor communication skills often go hand-in-hand with a lack of self-confidence, resilience and social skills. Behaviour can be affected too: two-thirds of three-year-olds with delayed language development have behaviour problems according to the Communication Trust.

These all contribute to how young people think of themselves as they move up through the school system. And we hear regularly from teachers and others about children as young as six who are already struggling with their mental health during pressure points in their school life. Starting from a good foundation and getting the basics right early on, therefore, are important not just for a child’s wellbeing but for the wellbeing of the entire school community.

What might turn these findings around?

Parents can often find themselves the target of criticism on this subject and they certainly have a huge role to play in preparing children for school.

However, while most want the very best for their child, not all necessarily know what is expected by school age. Having a clear definition of “school-ready” may make a difference – but only if it is understood by all parents, including those who are harder to reach.

One solution, therefore, might lie in a co-ordinated effort with the health visitor service. All families have access to a health visitor during the early years of a child’s life, and can expect five health reviews up to a child’s two-year check. School-readiness is a key focus of the later visits but might there be scope to do more at this stage to help all parents nurture their children’s social skills and speech development?

Additionally, some of the headteachers we have spoken to have told us that children are more likely to be school-ready if they already have siblings in school. This suggests some value in schools and families working together – so perhaps the earlier this can happen, the better. It also points to the positive impact of children being able to interact with other children (siblings or otherwise), especially those whose language is more developed.

Plans to introduce 30 hours of free childcare for working parents (currently in a pilot phase) might also help. This initiative will only reach working parents, and is not without its critics, but early investment in children’s development seems to reap rewards later, and can reduce the time that both pupils and teachers spend playing catch-up in the classroom.


Perhaps achieving school-readiness requires a clear understanding of what it means, and a commitment from families, health services and early years education providers to make it happen. This means it depends also on relationships – and as ever, relationships that are built on a trusting and non-judgemental partnership.

  • Amy Cook is blog editor and senior researcher at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools.

Further information

The Key’s annual State of Education Report unpicks some of the big questions and challenges in the school sector. To read the 2016 report, go to www.thekeysupport.com/state-of-education-2016

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