Don't blame early years providers for children arriving at school in nappies

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Are more four-year-olds really starting Reception without being toilet trained, asks Alison Featherbe, and where does the fault lie?

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Alison Featherbe: 'All the providers I have worked with ensure that children have the basic self-help skills before entering Reception'

Last week, I attended the 'Minds Matter' Pre-school Learning Alliance Conference with my colleague Rebecca Martland.

We listened intently to the Amanda Spielman speech, specifically about ‘school readiness’ and the physical development of children. 70 per cent of schools, apparently, have reported that children aged four are arriving to start Reception at school unable to use the toilet.

Did I miss that trend? Have I not recognised that practitioners were missing this very obvious 'next step' for children?

I felt despondent, incensed and perplexed all rolled into one! I knew that the headline grabbing 'children arrive at school in nappies', referred to in the speech, meant that it would be the topic of conversation in the media for days to come and, sure enough, there were phone-ins to reinforce the negative opinion that this headline inferred.

So, early years providers are not preparing children for school and are getting money from the Government to do it? I dug a little deeper, trying to make sense of this culture change.

The ATL survey, from 2016, that was referred to, had 699 respondents.

Of those, 491 said 'yes', they were finding more children were starting school without being toilet trained, compared with five years ago. This was misleading, hardly 70 per cent of schools.

Another recent survey that was also referred to highlighted the amount of time teachers spend cleaning up after children having accidents. This was in fact a report from Essity, a health and hygiene company, working with teachers, local authorities and health professionals as they try their best, with limited budgets and resources to improve toilet hygiene.

Toilets in schools have suffered from serious underinvestment. While I recognise that there are many reasons children aren't confident in this area it is clear that the environment is not conducive to children’s wellbeing. Support staff have been cut and savings made on health and hygiene resources.

A recent news story also referred to, 'children being sent to school in nappies'. This in fact was one councillor’s comments about parents who ‘can't be bothered’ to toilet train their children in Gloucestershire. 

I am certain this is not a widely-held view. Why take one person’s negative view and relate it to all early years providers?

In early years we work closely with parents to support children through the process of toilet training.  It's not easy sometimes and, in my opinion, made harder by the reliance and use of pull-ups. There may well be a culture change but as yet we have no evidence of this.

All the providers I have worked with ensure that children have the basic self-help skills before entering Reception. Children and families who need support in this area must be provided for. Going to the toilet is a basic human right.

Telling the early years community that children begin school so far behind their peers and are being teased, is deflating. We have worked hard to ensure ‘school readiness’. Schools need to be ready for children. We know what we are doing, we do work closely with parents, we identify when children are struggling in this area and we do ‘play our part’.

If Ofsted want to increase the percentage of early years practitioners who have been regularly stressed as a result of their job higher than the 74 per cent it currently is (Minds Matter 2018), then I suggest they keep sending out these devaluing comments.

We look forward to the 'important discussion’ Ofsted are going to have about the role of nurseries and childminders in physical development. This, I am sure, will be an issue that we will be hearing more about.  

Alison Featherbe, Orange Caterpillar - Independent Early Years Advice and Support, Minding the Gap CPD

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