Increasing numbers of children are not ready for school

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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From speech and language problems to social and emotional issues, increasing numbers of children are arriving at primary school not ready to learn. Pete Henshaw looks at the findings of new research into the causes of this growing problem

More and more children are arriving at primary school not ready to take part in classroom activities, a survey of school leaders has revealed.

Key areas of concern include children’s speech, language and communication skills as well as social, emotional and physical development.

The research says that budget cuts to wider community support services, as well as budget pressure within schools, is behind the growing problem.

The report, which has been produced by the Family and Childcare Trust (FCT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), states: “Reductions in local authority and health budgets, combined with pressures on school budgets as a whole, would appear to be having a knock-on effect on children’s school readiness.”

The July 2017 survey involved 780 school leaders from primary schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. School readiness was a problem for 83 per cent of the schools, with almost nine in 10 of those stating that the problem is worse now than it was five years ago. A quarter said that more than half of their new intake was not ready for school.

Almost all (97 per cent) the respondents who had problems with school readiness identified speech, language and communication needs as the biggest issue. Other reported issues included:

  • Personal, social and emotional development, including behaviour (94 per cent).
  • Physical development including self-care, such as toileting (78 per cent).
  • Literacy and mathematics (39 per cent).
  • Understanding of the world (29 per cent).

Around 40 per cent of the headteachers who had pupils not ready for school said that a good number of them had unidentified SEND.

The report states: “Many respondents raised concerns over a lack of support for parents and that issues were not being picked up early enough, meaning that issues were left unaddressed for too long and opportunities for early intervention were missed.”

The most common reasons highlighted for children not being school ready included:

  • A failure to identify and support additional needs early enough (67 per cent).
  • Parents having less available resources and pressure on parents and family life (66 per cent).
  • A reduction in local services to support families (63 per cent).
  • A reduction in local health services to support families (57 per cent).

Furthermore, almost 9 in 10 (88 per cent) of the school leaders said inadequate school funding was a barrier to improving school readiness.

Despite the challenges, the schools involved in the survey said they were undertaking a wide range of work to try and tackle the problems they faced. This included home visits prior to children beginning in Reception, work with health and social care services, running parental support groups, and supporting home learning in nursery. Early years SENCOs and family support workers are also key roles in some of these schools.

Ahead of the Treasury’s autumn statement, the NAHT and the FCT are calling on the government to prioritise funding for support for families in the early years.

The report adds: “Support for parents, early years providers and schools is essential to help tackle the issue of school readiness as early as possible, especially for children with SEND. Partnerships between early years providers, schools, parents, local authorities, health services and other services need to be adequately funded and well-coordinated to help support all children who may find starting school challenging.”

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary said: “We want to see extra money for education, including early education before children start school, and renewed investment in critical services for families. Without proper investment, the youngest and most vulnerable in our society will be starting off behind, with uncertain chances of catching up.”

Ellen Broomé, chief executive of the FCT, which is a charity focused on policy, research and advocacy relating to childcare and family issues, said: “There is strong evidence that early education can help to boost children’s outcomes and narrows the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers – but only if it is high-quality. The government must make sure that every child can access high-quality early education and that parents can get the right support to help them to give their children the best start in life.”

Responding to the research findings, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that the pressures facing children’s services are rapidly becoming unsustainable, blaming a combination of funding cuts and huge increases in demand.

Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “On-going cuts to local authority budgets are forcing many areas to make extremely difficult decisions about how to allocate increasingly scarce resources. It is those services which aim to support families at an early stage, before issues become serious, that have seen their funding reduced as councils are forced to prioritise urgent help for children at immediate risk of harm.

“Children’s services face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020, with many councils reporting that pressure on children’s budgets is now even greater than that faced by adult social care. Councils have responded by reducing costs and remodelling services, but it is clear that there are very few savings left to find without having a real and lasting impact upon crucial services that many people across the country have come to rely on.”

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