Why ‘school readiness’ is backwards thinking

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Too often the school system treats children as 'oven ready' chickens on a production line, writes Anne Gladstone.


Anne Gladstone, trainer and consultant

This phrase has established itself in everyday dialogue in education and in the media, and for me it just slips too glibly off the tongue, considering the huge hidden agenda (deliberate or not) behind it. It reminds me most of ‘oven ready’ chickens, which are processed to be easy for us to cook, rather than having to draw, pluck and dress them. The point here is that those chickens are prepared according to a predetermined method, probably on an assembly line, and they all end up looking more or less the same. When they were alive their differences might have been too subtle for me to notice, but I’m pretty confident the chickens could recognise them in each other.

Children are all born as perfect little beings with their own unique, individual differences who are already able to intuitively discover, learn about and adapt to the world they find themselves in. Rousseau and Piaget talked about this many years ago and now contemporary research into brain development is showing this to be absolutely the case. So why then, as soon as children reach the age of five, does it become necessary to forget all this and begin to pre-pack them for the school system?

‘School readiness’ implies, for me, that children are essentially imperfect and need to be standardised to fit the system. It seems that the child is not at the centre of this thinking – probably nowhere in it at all. It is as if we are preparing children to fit into a system which isn't designed to nurture and support them as individuals to reach their chosen goals, but to make them passive receivers of facts, be good at sitting still, to know how to queue up quietly and, above all, pass assessments so the school meets its targets – the school, not the children!

What happens when you are fitted into something that isn't the right size for you? If it's too small, it will inhibit movement and growth. If it's too big, it will chafe and get in the way. That's what is happening to children who are in a system which isn't developmentally attuned or appropriate. All the well-founded theory about children's development has been conveniently forgotten and the mantra of ‘raising standards’ has become the order of the day. Of course, in order to raise standards, we are told that children need to be ‘school ready’. I would certainly agree that in order for all children to reach their full potential, they need a wide range of well-thought-through and well-delivered, developmentally appropriate, play-based experiences. With access to this, either in the home or in a pre-school setting, they would be very likely to flourish in more formal education.


The question for me is – are schools child-ready? I fear they are not. The National Curriculum seems to be bearing down onto early years, creating the pressure for reading, writing and mathematics to be formally taught at an increasingly younger age. This will not have the effect of raising standards – just the opposite. Children need to develop a conceptual understanding of the world before we start to introduce formal systems. These formal systems will be essential for future success, but only if children adopt them in a way that makes sense, enabling them to be used naturally for learning.

You only have to look at the literacy and numeracy rates in the UK (about one in five adults is functionally illiterate and/or innumerate) to realise that our current system has flaws. Focusing on ‘school readiness’ isn't going to help. We shouldn't try to pre-pack individuals to fit into a flawed system – we should be looking closely at the system itself and asking if it is fit for purpose. We need children to grow into flexible, free-thinking and innovative individuals in order to succeed in a fast-changing world; they are already equipped with the possibility to do this – our education system should nurture these abilities, not close them down with narrow, production-line thinking.

I believe the more we constrain young children through an inappropriate system, the more unnecessary pressure we put on them, leading to a generation of young people who are worried about their ability to succeed and who feel they are failing to come up to the mark. Feeling like this can only be damaging to the individual's emotional health. Surely we want children and young people to be confident in themselves, up for a challenge and able to fully develop their individual abilities, together with the emotional well-being this would bring.

That is what I wish for children and young people, and I believe that so do many others, both within and outside the education system. When the policies that shape our education system take account of children's natural developmental processes, the system itself will become child-ready and be capable of ensuring everyone, whatever their individual differences, reaches their full potential.

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