Falling at the first hurdle: the real reason our 4 and 5 year olds are not school-ready

Few things get me as riled up, as the unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure that our school system puts on our children.

This headline appeared in today’s news:

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“Too many new pupils not school ready, say head teachers”

Apparently, according to 86% of headteachers in this survey from the NAHT (a leading headteachers’ union), the number of children starting school without being “school ready” is increasing, and they believe the top reasons for it are:

  • failure to identify and support children’s additional needs;
  • parents having less resources;
  • pressure on family life;
  • reductions in local services to support families.

Really? I mean, REALLY?

What planet are these headteachers on? Was the survey written so as not to allow respondents to give the real reason – that the expectations now being placed on our 4 and 5 year olds are, at best, simply unrealistic and, at worst, dangerously damaging?
The brains, bodies and emotions of 4 and 5 year olds are not developmentally ready for academic schooling. It’s as simple as that. It’s not down to parents not having resources, or families not being offered educational support. It’s because we are expecting too much, too young. And nothing else.
There are numerous, very reliable and expert studies into early childhood development and early learning, that prove beyond doubt that 4 or 5 is too young for formal schooling. Some of that evidence has helpfully been collated here by the University of Cambridge, in support of the Too Much Too Soon campaign, whose aim is to get this message through to the people that need to hear it.

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And yet our ministers and our Department for Education are simply not listening!
And although many schools will have you believe that their reception year is “largely play-based” (or words to that effect), walk into any Year R classroom at 9.30am on any given day, and I could almost guarantee that you will see teacher-led, formal instruction, most likely in either English or Maths. Maybe not during the first few “settling-in” weeks, but certainly by the end of the autumn term, it’s all systems go.

Because Foundation Stage teachers are under just as much pressure as any other teacher, to prove their students are performing. They still have to provide evidence and assessments and progress reports, to prove those children are continually learning. And since the rearrangement of the national curriculum, every single year group in primary schools, is finding themselves teaching content that used to be reserved for older children; more complex and often developmentally inappropriate skills. From the moment the new curriculum was proposed, teachers, headteachers and education experts expressed their concern, as this article from 2013 clearly shows. No wonder our Early Years staff are having to force these unrealistic expectations on our 4 and 5 year olds. It’s affecting every class in the school.
Now the problem of “school-readiness” is apparently so dire, that almost a quarter (24%) of those asked, estimated that over half of their intake was not school-ready, with concerns including speech, language and communication issues, personal, social and emotional development, behaviour issues, and physical development.
But can we really expect children of 4, especially those summer-borns who have only just turned 4, to be expert enough in all these areas to be able sit still, listen intently, not distract others, take in everything a teacher is saying, while trying to block out the other 25 children around them, follow instructions without question, remember new routines, cope with long days, wrap their brains around whatever new facts or information or skills they are expected to learn that day, and do all this while behaving themselves according to the classroom rules. There is so much here that simply goes against their human nature – against their desire to play and explore and experiment and steer their own learning, and against what their brains and bodies are actually capable of doing at that age. Some may say that this has happened for many years, and nobody had a problem with it until now. But you cannot deny that the pressure on teachers and schools, to churn out impressive data and test results, has certainly skyrocketed in recent years. Perhaps before, the stakes were not so high as they now are, with schools being threatened with special measures or even closure or academy conversion, if progress data and results are not good enough.
I can’t help feeling, when findings such as these are published, that the onus is being wrongly shifted – away from the school system itself and onto preschools, families and support or intervention terms – the scapegoats. In truth, the problem is not that those groups aren’t doing everything possible for their children; the problem is that traditional schooling requires far more than its youngest cohort can manage.

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It’s not the children that need to change. It’s the ridiculously low school starting age, and the detrimental forcing of an academic curriculum onto them.
In other words, the whole thinking behind school-readiness needs to be turned on its head. Perhaps we do not need greater government investment in early years education (including more education before school) or family services, as the NAHT suggests. If children aren’t coping with the expectations of schooling at such a young age, and with the plethora of supporting evidence from psychologists and child development experts, why aren’t our education ministers listening, and suggesting alternatives? A later start to formal schooling, would bring us into line with the rest of the world, and radically ease this whole “school-readiness” problem.
And it would give our nation’s school children the fair chance at success that they need when they first enter the school system, rather than causing so many to fall down at the first hurdle.

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