Why schools need to focus more on the under-fives

Research from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Royal Foundation suggests we need to focus more on early years
27th November 2020, 6:00am


Why schools need to focus more on the under-fives

The Duchess Of Cambridge's Charity Says More Priority Needs To Be Given To Early Years

A new report by The Royal Foundation, based on Ipsos MORI research, looked into parents’ perspectives on the early years and parents’ attitudes before and during the pandemic, and it offers a penetrating insight into an area too often explored via anecdotal evidence and personal experience.  

The headline insight from the report - that parents recognise that their child needs to be nurtured, but only 25 per cent recognise the specific importance of the first five years - reflects attitudes in the education sector. While the importance of early child development is acknowledged, it is not adequately covered during teacher training or in leadership development opportunities.

Consequently, educators lack the depth of understanding necessary to promote the case for change, especially for more investment and support for children from conception to three years old.

At present, the state invests far less in this period of childhood than any other period up to the end of higher education, and the cost of later intervention is estimated at approximately £17 billion. 

Underinvestment in early years

A deeper understanding might change perceptions of the value and impact of teaching our youngest children and build respect and admiration for our early years workforce. Reach Academy Feltham is an all-through school, and our upper primary and secondary teachers observe with fascination the opportunity for impact and the intellectual challenge of teaching the youngest children.  

The research also offers a powerful insight into parental perspectives: 70 per of parents feel judged by others, and nearly half of parents feel this negatively impacts their mental health.

This resonates with me: as a parent, I am at my most uncomfortable when my children are criticised.

New approaches

This is where the school’s role can be transformative: since so much of what helps children flourish comes from home relationships and their home environment, it is crucial that the school develops a trusted, personal connection with parents as early as possible in the child’s life. 

For us, at Reach Academy Feltham, close support for, and collaboration with, parents has been a priority from the outset. Our decision to be on first-name terms with pupils and parents is one way in which we hope to cut through barriers to communication with parents, by signalling that we welcome parents’ participation in school life, as part of our joint endeavour to enable their children to thrive.

In discussions with parents, my cofounder, Rebecca Cramer, and I often share our own parenting challenges, endeavouring to show empathy and avoid being judgmental.  
Once these trusted relationships are in place, there is much to communicate to parents, to promote their child’s development: how their sharing attention on an object with a baby supports the baby’s communication skills, how young children need to be engaged in conversation and read to, as well as reading themselves.

With empathy comes the opportunity to build rigour and share insights, which we have tried to do through universal access to courses with Family Links.  

Building links with parents

The research shows that loneliness has increased dramatically during the pandemic - up to 63 per cent from it being experienced by a significant minority, 38 per cent, before the pandemic. I wonder whether there is an opportunity for schools here, too?

Primary schools, in particular, offer networks and sources of support, and enriching relationships among parents, once their children start, but they could welcome families at an earlier stage.

Opening buildings to ante-natal classes in the evening or occasional stay-and-plays for new parents could help to combat loneliness and isolation in a wider community, thereby improving parental mental health and supporting children’s early development. The return for schools would be greater school readiness in future cohorts.  

In the longer term, there are further roles that schools can play. At Reach, we are developing a cradle-to-career model of support, whereby we hope to foster trusted relationships that can deepen and flourish throughout a child’s life, taking advantage of schools’ role as anchor institutions in our communities.  

The Duchess of Cambridge’s decision to make early years one of her main focuses gives our sector an important ally in developing a long-term vision. There is growing understanding of what matters, what works and how we can help to ensure that children make a great start. Our most important allies throughout are parents: engaging them in supportive, informative networks at the beginning of their journey could reap huge rewards for our sector in the long term.  

Ed Vainker is CEO of Reach Foundation 

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