Ready for School

by Barbara Isaacs, Chief Education Officer

What do our children need in order to be prepared for Reception? Policy-makers would benefit from heeding the words of the pioneers of early education, says Barbara Isaacsà ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦

I have been working in Early Years for long enough to remember the introduction of funding for nursery age children in 1995. At the time, one of the main arguments in support of the funding was US research demonstrating the long-term benefits of early education, particularly for disadvantaged children. Another came from observations made by infant school teachers, that children who experienced some kind of nursery provision settled more easily into the school life when joining Reception. In the last 20 years we have learned more about the benefits of pre-school education, not only from the influential EPPI research but also from many small-scale studies undertaken by academics and practitioners. We have also had opportunities to learn from other models of early childhood education in New Zealand, Reggio Emilia and Denmark, to name just a few.

Changing regulation  

There has been a gradual evolution of early years regulation in this time, too. It started relatively slowlynew frameworks were introduced in 1998 and 2000. The introduction of the EYFS in 2008 heralded the united approach to care and education and the 2012 and 2014 revisions ensured that anyone working with under-fives is obliged to comply with the EYFS principles and work towards helping children achieve the early learning goals. For the past  decade the effectiveness of the EYFS has been measured by the EYFS Profile, gathered annually from all children at the end of the Reception year.

The 2012 edition of the EYFS also introduced the idea of school readiness. While learning through play remains at the heart of the EYFS, and exploration and involvement are identified as making a significant contribution towards the childrens critical and creative thinking, the role of the early years teachers/practitioners is emphasised through a focus on adult-led activities.

To conclude this journey down memory lane, I find that while in 1995 the nursery experience was promoted as enhancing the childs readiness for school in and of itself, 20 years on and with billions of pounds spent on early years education, it is now our duty to prepare young children for school. What has changed? Where is the voice of the child? What about the view that childhood should be valued as a unique and important element of human development? What about the joys of playing and learning outside and inside while being supported by sensitive, well-informed and educated adults? The questions are just tumbling in. I am very aware that children are mentioned less and less in the public arena as we are frequently reminded of the needs of parents and our economy. Yet the same children will be the drivers of the economy in 20 yearsshould their childhood not be given the consideration it deserves?

What is school readiness?

I wonder about the meaning of school readiness. Could it mean sitting still and following the instructions of the teachers? I feel compelled to return to Montessoris own writing. She, along with the likes of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel and Steiner, recognised the unique nature of young children, and urged us to help them to follow their natural paths of development, in which physical, mental and emotional energies work towards the spontaneous unfolding of the human spirit. I am quite sure that, for Montessori, school ready would have meant an independent, competent child with good social and communication skills, respectful of others and the environment. A child who at the age of six (not four) is capable of deep-level engagement on a chosen or set task, and who has the self-discipline to work within the parameters of socially acceptable behaviour appropriate to the culture in which she is growing up.

Instead, its most likely that, from September 2015, children entering Reception class, some of whom will have only just turned four, will be tested in a range of base-line skills, which will be linked with their later performance in school. We are only a step away from preparing our three year-olds for these tests before they leave nursery.   This is a very dangerous road to travel and we should look back at the pioneers of early years education and revisit their values and principles before we agree to compromise childhood.

Find out more

MCI offers Diploma in Montessori pedagogyBirth to seven (Early Years Educator) qualifications.