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Mind the gap – getting our children ready for school

Parents across the country are battening down the emotional hatches, staying calm and trying to exude an air of quiet confidence. The reason: this week is the moment thousands of parents have waved goodbye at the school gates to children starting their first day at primary school.

This is a moment of joy, celebration and hope, mixed with a healthy dose of the Collywobbles as the big day approaches. My own 4 year-old is part of the reception class cavalry charge – and I can personally attest to the Collywobble syndrome.

As primary schools across the country open their doors, this is also a moment to reflect on a national educational failure.

We are letting down many children before they even start school. Figures from the Department for Education show that almost one in four school starters in England – 200,000 children – haven’t reached the expected level of development.

As ever, poverty is a compounding factor. Children from the poorest homes are a year behind in their language and literacy skills by the age of 5. The shortfall is part of a wider picture. Last year, only around half of children eligible for free school meals had reached their key development milestones by the time they started primary school.

These indicators matter on many levels. The social disparities in language and communication among children in reception classes persist and widen throughout the school years. Over half of the inequality in learning outcomes at age 11 can be traced back to the pre-school years. Children who score badly on school readiness at the age of 5 are far less likely to succeed in secondary school – and far more likely to experience poor health and low pay as adults.

In short, failure to ensure that children are ready to learn not only robs them of their potential and squanders a vital national asset: it also reinforces inequality and obstructs social mobility.

Statistics alone do not capture the disadvantage that many of the children about to enter reception classes will carry with them. Earlier this year I visited a primary school in Margate. The head teacher told me it wasn’t untypical for a new pupil in reception class to have a vocabulary of fewer than 50 words. A sizeable minority had never read a book or been read to, and struggling with comprehension and communication often led to behavioural difficulties.

So what is going wrong and how can we fix the underlying problems?

There are no easy answers. We know from a vast body of research that parenting is by far the biggest determinant of school readiness. Children without secure parental bonds are more likely to display behavioural problems. Mums and dads are also a child’s first teachers. When parents play with their children, sing songs, create rhymes and read stories they are putting in place the vital building blocks – the motor, vocabulary and communication – skills that will enable their children to flourish.

All parents want the best for their children. Yet many struggle without the support they need to put in place the foundations their children need. Poverty and economic hardship come with exposure to stress, time constraints and a struggle to afford the things that give children the best learning environment. Some parents also lack the literacy and numeracy skills needed to support their children.

There are no quick fixes, but the home environment is a site of opportunity. Nappy-changing, which happens around 6,000 times in the first two years, provides the perfect enabling environment. Encouraging parents to interact with their children through talk, songs and rhyming can help bonding and support language development. This is what Save the Children is doing with other partners through our Wonder Words programme.

There are signs that the UK Government is starting to recognise the scale of the early learning challenge. The Education Secretary has recently pledged to halve the early language gap by 2028, with a major focus on how we can help parents in their children’s early years. What we need now is a national debate on how to deliver on that commitment.

Nurseries have a critical role to play

Almost 95% of our children attend formal childcare before they start school. This represents a critical opportunity to close the learning gap. We know that children who receive high-quality childcare start reception classes on average with literacy and language skills seven months ahead of children who do not. Having highly qualified staff in place is the single biggest indicator of quality.  Yet half of all two- to four-olds are attending childcare settings lacking a graduate early years teacher. Ensuring that childcare provision is led by these skilled teachers would help catalyse change and accelerate closure of the school-readiness gap.

All of which raises some fundamental questions. Just last month the government effectively jettisoned a key commitment to boost the number of trained early years teachers in disadvantaged areas. More generally, the Government is under-investing in the training and retention of staff equipped to deliver high quality provision – 2,000 nurseries in the poorest areas do not have access to an early years teacher where they are needed most.

The current policy is a case-study in bad economics. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown, investments in good quality pre-school provision yield high returns. Every £1 invested can generate over £7 in the future benefits arising from increased productivity, higher wages and improved health. Failure to invest is the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in both feet.

But you don’t need a Nobel Prize economist to work out the real reason to act

The bottom line is that we are failing millions of the poorest and most vulnerable children in this country. In effect, we are slamming the door on the exit route from poverty that educational opportunity could provide.

That diminishes us as a nation. The early learning crisis represents an affront to any sense of fairness, equal opportunity and social justice. It’s a crisis we can tackle – and the time to act is now.

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