Shortage of funding barrier to school readiness

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Lack of early years funding is leaving children less ready for school than five years ago, according to a new survey of school leaders.

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Schools report that children are starting school unable to take part in classroom activities

A report by the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Family and Childcare Trust, found that 83 per cent of school leaders surveyed reported many children arriving at primary school unable to take part in classroom activities.

The report acknowledged there is debate surrounding the definition of ‘school readiness’, and asked school leaders it surveyed to consider a child to be ‘school ready’ if the child was able to begin to participate in the curriculum and wider school life upon reaching the current compulsory school age.

Responses were received from 780 headteachers, deputy heads, assistant heads and middle leaders, including year leads.

Of these, 86 per cent were concerned that children’s school readiness is worse than five years ago, and almost a quarter said that over half their intake was not ready for school.

Four-fifths of those who felt there was an issue with school readiness said children who had no previous early education demonstrated the most challenging issues.

Almost nine in 10 respondents said inadequate school funding was a barrier to improving school readiness.

The NAHT and the Family and Childcare Trust have called on the Government to prioritise support for families in the early years, including additional funding for early education, to help prepare children for school and ‘level the playing field’ at the beginning of their education.

Ellen Broomé, chief executive of the Family and Childcare Trust, 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.’

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, added, ‘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.’

In the report, respondents highlighted particular concerns about communication skills and emotional and physical development. Speech, language and communication problems were the biggest issues, with 97 per cent of school leaders identifying these as a concern. Personal, social and emotional development, including behaviour, was identified as the second most common issue, and physical development, including self-care, was the third.

Chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association Purnima Tanuku said, ‘Children who attend high quality early years education develop good social and communication skills. There is a need for schools to work closely with early years settings when children are making the transition into school. This helps teachers to understand a child’s starting point and where development is needed.

‘Early years practitioners are also best placed to identify those children at an early age who need extra support to give them the best start. Unfortunately there is often a delay in acquiring this additional support which means that many children are not helped until they start school. By this time, the gap in development is much harder to bridge.

‘The Early Years Pupil Premium, which helps disadvantaged children, is also too low in early years, which is exactly the time of a child’s life when this early investment could make the most difference. If this amount was equal to levels given to children in schools, it would help to fully support these children prior to starting school.’

The reasons given most frequently by school leaders responding to the survey for children not being school ready were a failure to identify and support additional needs early enough, pressure on parents or a lack of family resources, and a reduction in local services to support families.

Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said, ‘Investing in the early years is crucial if we are to give our children the best start in life. As this survey highlights, an increasing number of children are not school ready, which is in turn impacting on their learning as well as putting further strain on school resources.’

He added, ‘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.’

In order to help improve school readiness, 61 per cent of school leaders surveyed by NAHT and the Family and Childcare Trust said they were using home visits prior to the child starting in reception and more than half said they were engaging with health and social care services.

Liz Bayram, PACEY chief executive, highlighted the importance of cooperation between services. ‘Better partnership working between schools, parents and EY settings in the months leading up to a child starting in reception as well as shared language and expectations are all key to ensuring a smooth transition,’ she commented. ‘We should also remember that the EYFS runs up to and include the reception year. We should not expect children to be truly school ready until year 1.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We welcome the report’s recognition that the concept of “school-readiness” is a problematic one. We at the Alliance firmly believe that children develop at their own pace and that policy focus should be on ensuring that schools are ready for children, and not the other way around. That said, it is of course vital that all children are given the support needed to ensure they are in the best possible position upon starting school life, and high-quality early years provision undoubtedly plays a pivotal role in this.

‘Key to all this, as always, is investment. The fact that such a significant majority of survey respondents reported that they have neither the funding nor the resources to give adequate support to those children who most need it simply isn’t acceptable. The Government talks a lot about social mobility and life chances, but if children are being left behind as the result of a continued lack of investment, it’s all just meaningless rhetoric.’

Labour’s shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin added, ‘This report should make sobering reading for Tory ministers. It is yet more evidence of a problem that has worsened on their watch. It is now incumbent on the Government to ensure their spending on childcare goes towards high quality early years education, supporting children to get the best start in life.

‘By contrast, the Tories’ chronically underfunded 30-free hour childcare offer has not only left too many parents not receiving the free care they were promised but has seen many of the most experienced and highest-rated providers walk away from the sector entirely. Ministers should take their concerns seriously before the childcare sector reaches a crisis point.’

A Government spokesperson said, 'High quality early education is vital to ensure every child is able to achieve their full potential. That is why we are investing a record £6 billion every year by 2020 – more than ever before - in childcare and early education.

'The proportion of childcare providers rated good or outstanding remains at a historic high and it is our ambition to raise the status of the profession and spread quality around the country so that all children will get the best start to their education

'The gap between disadvantaged children and others achieving a good level of development has narrowed since 2013. The Government’s historic four year funding settlement provides councils with £200 billion to help them fund all local services as well as more than £16 billion in local government public health services so they can deliver the services their communities need.'

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