Ready for school?

Proud parents with cameras at the ready, grinning children in slightly oversized school uniforms. The first-day-of-school photograph: a rite of passage for thousands of children every year.

It is a day many will remember fondly when parents and caregivers across the country energetically click away to capture cherished memories.

For countless children it is their first step into formal education, moving into ‘big school’ from nursery and home-based play and learning.

Many months will have been spent preparing for the moment and it can be a source of understandable anxiety for parents: will they be okay? Will they make friends? Will they like the food?

And if that wasn’t enough, there is one more thing to worry about: ‘school readiness’.

School readiness is a concept that has gained significant traction over the past decade.

Roughly, it is described as a child possessing a basic set of skills they will need in their transition from early years education to primary schooling. Can they go to the toilet on their own? How well can they talk? Can they cooperate with other children or listen quietly for ten minutes?

The idea is discussed at the local, national and global level, and is now firmly ensconced in the mainstream lexicon. Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund), the UK government and local governments across the world are all involved in school readiness, offering their own interpretation and guidance.

It is at once both vague and clearly defined. A seemingly simple enough concept on the surface, digging deeper will unveil muddier waters, which – in the UK at least – could be doing more harm than good.

Are we making schools ready for the very young children that we are putting in them?

At Manchester Metropolitan, education and language researchers are working with practitioners to think about the impact of school readiness on schools, parents and local education authorities.

They are looking to understand how benchmarks around school readiness are currently applied, and what could be done to help families, teachers and schools.

As part of a special roundtable discussion, Met Magazine brought together the University’s leading experts working in the field of school readiness.

The academics and researchers are currently partnering with nurseries to understand the curriculum for early years and the current criteria by which children are judged.

They are also developing a relationship with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership to shape local policies on school readiness as the region aims to raise the levels of children’s development at four years old to above the national average, which currently stands at 71.5 per cent of all children reaching the defined benchmark, known as the Good Level of Development (GLD).

Speak to any academic involved in the school readiness debate and it’s likely the same themes will emerge.

Primarily, are schools themselves ready for children? And how are the children – often as young as two – benchmarked against school readiness criteria?

Deborah James, Professor of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education, believes the concept of school readiness is entwined with a ‘political endeavour’ to formalise the curriculum for the early years.

She said: “The concept of school readiness is partly a product of changes to the way in which the early years have been positioned as having a formal role in education.

“The formalisation of the early years’ curriculum and the measurement of its outcomes might skew the focus towards skills that are clearly related to formal educational outcomes, like reading and maths, and away from the fundamental bases that playfulness and relationships set up, that are much more powerful determinants for success across the life-course.”

All images: parents, children and teachers from Martenscroft Nursery School, in Manchester

The formality of the education system brings with it a range of potential difficulties.

“In the UK we bring children into formal school earlier than most other countries,” said Juliet Goldbart, Professor of Developmental Disabilities at Manchester Metropolitan.

“So that notion of formalising a curriculum hits very sharply: children are expected to be in those formal settings when they are younger than would be the case in other countries.

“One way of turning the topic on its head would be saying ‘are we making schools ready for the very young children that we are putting in them?’”

Professor James explained the difficulties around trying to impose a one-size fits all type of school readiness. “We need to consider how communities themselves get ready for their children to be ready for school,” she said. “Children in schools in early years’ settings are a product of, or intimately related to, the communities they are serving. It is important to think about it from a community perspective because we are a multi-cultural society; we have different communities and ideas about education and about parenting.”

Dr Julie Marshall, Reader in Communication Disability and Development, added: “In a multi-cultural context, such as Manchester, it is really important we think about what children are exposed to at home before they get to school.

“So, how do adults talk to children, or do children mostly talk to other children? Is English being spoken in the home, or are different languages being spoken in the home?

“What are the kinds of ways that children are expected, or encouraged, to speak to other people?

“We need to think about how schools are ready for children who come to school with these different expectations of communication. We need to think very carefully about whether what we absolutely want to do is take all these children, whatever their experiences are, and make them exactly the same so they fit into school – or are we happy with children who communicate in different sorts of ways, learn their language from different sorts of people and different settings.”

Dr Christina MacRae, a researcher from the Faculty of Education, is working with Martenscroft Nursery School in Manchester, which caters for two-year-old children.

She said: “When I’m going into settings, I can feel a tremendous pressure on parents because the discourse is around the need for them to get children ready for school and at the same time, children are coming into nursery ever earlier with 15-hour-a-week funding offered to ‘disadvantaged’ two-year olds.

“There is an inherent tension between schools and parents about who is responsible for getting children ready for school. It then has a knock-on effect to nurseries who care from children between the ages of two and four.”

A revised early years’ curriculum and assessment framework introduced by the government in 2013 changed the benchmarks by which children are assessed when they leave reception class at five years old. These changes heralded what has become the national benchmark of school readiness, the GLD, by which local authorities measure their success in getting children school ready.

The GLD is also used as a measure of teacher and school effectiveness. This high-stakes testing regime has a particular weighting towards literacy and numeracy over all other areas of learning, which means those who speak English as a second language, or children who have special needs or summer-born children, may be less likely to achieve the expected levels.

Set against this context, Manchester Metropolitan researchers are peeling back the layers on the understanding of the wider lives of children.

Research from Dr Abigail Hackett, also from the Faculty of Education, is showing how many factors play a part in a child’s progress and preparedness for school.

Dr Hackett said: “The child assessment framework is very narrow and penalises families from diverse backgrounds.

“The notion of school readiness at an individual level can actually serve to mask wider inequalities in society, for example around economic stability, housing, nutrition, crime, health and so on. Parents can end up being blamed for their children’s alleged lack of school readiness.

“Young children’s communication is affected by everything from the number of languages spoken at home to the kind of housing the family live in.

“The emerging theme is that the government needs to support vulnerable parents and improve living conditions.”

The students are going out into the workforce trained and thinking quite differently

Dr MacRae echoes these concerns, citing a current emphasis on a GLD benchmark which can put particular groups of children at a disadvantage.

For example, identifying children who speak English as a second language as delayed in their development does not take into account their language capabilities in their home language. It can also be linked to the growing trend by early years education providers of steering away from registering children who may impact school readiness measurements, a process known as ‘off-rolling’.

Dr Hackett and Dr MacRae are both carrying out people-centred research projects by embedding themselves in local communities, nurseries and playgroups that involve parents as co-researchers. Their projects focus on the realities of parenting in austere times.

This asks the question of what, in the current rigid system of assessment and GLD, can be done to affect change?

The University is looking to lead in this area by influencing the next generation of practitioners, ensuring they are sensitive to the issues at play, particularly in multicultural educational settings.

It can be something as simple as learning to strip back the language of progress reports, employing simple terminology and demystifying any technical jargon. Or recognising the potential nervousness of parents in schools and providing appropriate support.

The early years programmes at Manchester Metropolitan, part of the Faculty of Education’s School of Childhood, Youth and Education Studies, are infused throughout with child development expertise, from traditional development theories to deconstructing and questioning child development.

This provides students with an opportunity to think about and critique how developmental theories and their alternatives are understood and put into practice in a complex society.

“The students are going out into the workforce trained and thinking quite differently,” said Professor Rachel Holmes, who leads the Children and Childhood Research Group in the Education and Social Research Institute, based in the Faculty of Education.

“We are developing a workforce drawn from the cultures and communities that live and are part of Manchester, a process that helps build cross-cultural ways of understanding and working with young children and their families from diverse heritages.”

The researchers believe a diverse student body helps to make the workforce much stronger by having a better understanding of what family situations may be like.

Professor Goldbart added: “It equips students to work in family-centred ways so they’re asking families about what’s the priority for them, what’s important for your family life and your child’s quality of life. It’s about being able to sometimes relegate their own professional priority in order to promote something that is important for the particular family.”

In addition to the work the University is doing to develop a new workforce, it is also helping parents understand that they have a crucial role to play too.

Professor James said: “My model is to work to understand with the families what their priorities might be and then to work towards those areas with them, believing that their hopes and dreams and beliefs are the absolute priority. It’s my role to serve and support that and put the services in place if services are needed to enable that to happen.”

Dr MacRae believes a beneficial role is to work with parents as ‘co-researchers’.

She added: “It’s not about giving advice, it’s about ‘you’re the parents, you know your child best, you have this massive body of knowledge, let’s work together’.”

All images: parents, children and teachers from Martenscroft Nursery School, in Manchester

Pulling together – Greater Manchester’s mission

Greater Manchester has taken on the challenge of school readiness, leading the way in tackling the issue, with local authorities and other organisations working together to give children the best possible start.

Mayor Andy Burnham has made it a priority, hosting the Greater Manchester School Readiness Summit in February, championing Greater Manchester’s approach and helping to drive the city-region’s ambition to increase the number of children who are school ready to above the national average by 2021.

The University’s speech and language therapy researchers and education specialists are working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership (GMHSCP), influencing the development of school readiness processes locally. Manchester Metropolitan also hosted an early years school readiness roundtable discussion in December 2018, bringing together University and GMCA experts.

Jon Rouse, Chief Officer of GMHSCP, said: “Devolution provides us with a unique opportunity to influence the wider factors in health within Greater Manchester such as housing, employment, environment, education, to make a real difference.

“We’re working hard to better support parents, provide spaces where children can play and learn, improve early years’ services and develop better infrastructure. By taking this system-wide approach we can develop a system that supports healthy and happy children and ensures no child is left behind.

“School-ready children who are eager to learn, confident, able to share and with good social skills get the best start in life and can fulfil their potential, no matter where they are born or raised in Greater Manchester.”

The assessment of school readiness is made using the Good Level of Development (GLD) indicator that assesses a child’s personal, social, emotional and physical development, communication skills and language.

Across Greater Manchester, 68 per cent of children achieved a GLD, compared to 71.5 per cent nationally.

The summit also explored new ways to continue improving school readiness and tackle educational inequality. This includes: investing in the early years workforce and skills; doing things differently with data and digital; and working more closely with the voluntary and community sector to achieve Greater Manchester’s school ready ambition.