Why we need a personalised approach to school readiness

The term ‘school readiness’ comes with a lot of baggage and means different things to different people, Louise Kay argues. The researcher tells Jon Severs and Zofia Niemtus we should move away from high-pressure accountability and towards an individualised approach to early learning
16th August 2019, 12:03am
Lots Of Luggage
Jon Severs & Zofia Niemtus

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Why we need a personalised approach to school readiness

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/why-we-need-personalised-approach-school-readiness

The phrase "school readiness" seems, on the surface, simple enough. To the untrained ear, it sounds like it refers to being ready for school. And it obviously does. But to those working in education, or education policy, it's a lot more complicated than that. So much so, in fact, that Dr Louise Kay, of the University of Sheffield's School of Education, has led a research project on Reception teachers' beliefs about the term.

"There is no clear definition about what school readiness actually means and, therefore, it's open to interpretation," she says. "There are two main issues that arise from that. Every year, around September, we see headlines reporting that a percentage of children aren't school ready.

"But this is quite confusing. The logical assumption is that school readiness is the point at which children start Reception. But the government looks at it as being the transition from Reception to Year 1."

And so, she explains, people are immediately talking about two different transitions, often without realising it. There is the institutional transition, when children move from home or preschool to Reception, and the curricular transition that takes them from Reception to Year 1.

These different moments require different skills. Children moving from home to Reception need practical skills such as being able to put on a coat and use the toilet, Kay says, whereas the transition from Reception to Year 1 requires more advanced, academically linked skills such as being able to write and knowing basic mathematical concepts.

"This blurring of what school readiness actually means is very problematic for teachers, parents and children," she continues. "That isn't helped when the two very different sets of skills are often confused in the media. In my research, I found teachers assumed, I think logically, that what I meant when I said 'school readiness' was what children can do on entry into Reception. So this construction of school readiness, as it comes through policy, does not align with what people understand school readiness to be."

Competing perspectives

Part of the complexity arises from the varied theories around the concept, Kay says. There are those who believe readiness is influenced by children's development rather than the environment, so it can't be accelerated beyond their natural potential. Then there are those with an environmentalist perspective, who place the focus on the skills and knowledge children need for school. Meanwhile, the interactionist perspective emphasises the family and wider community, and the part they play in ensuring children are ready for school - and schools are ready for children.

In addition, there's a socio-constructivist perspective, which posits that there's no single definition of what school readiness is, and that it is reliant on the personal beliefs of those who are actually working with children.

"That's where my research came into it," Kay says. "I explored what teachers' beliefs were about school readiness and the tension between those beliefs and the very rigid, instrumental way that policy, such as the early years foundation stage framework, actually measures school readiness. We've got a very diverse nature of personal belief within a very prescriptive policy framework."

That framework is a major point of contention, she explains, especially around accountability for teachers. They are required to assess pupils at the end of Reception in seven key areas of learning (known as early learning goals): communication and language; physical development; personal, social and emotional development; literacy; mathematics; understanding the world; and expressive arts and design.

Children are said to have a "good level of development" if they have reached the expected outcomes in the prime areas of learning (communication and language; physical development; and personal, social and emotional development) and maths and literacy. The results are then reported to the government, which creates a national picture of achievement. But Kay describes this binary method as a "blunt instrument" with unintended consequences.

"A child could effectively achieve all the early learning goals except for the most difficult, which is the writing one, and they are then measured as being not school ready," she says. "You are then sending children into Year 1 in a deficit position as 'emerging', which does not actually tell you much about what that child can do.

"Data shows that children who do not reach the marker for school readiness tend to be those on free school meals, children with English as an additional language, children with SEND [special educational needs and disabilities], summer-born children, and gypsy Roma children - so the children who are already marginalised within society are the ones who are not reaching those goals and are then classified as being not ready on entry to school."

We need to recognise that children bring a wealth of different experiences when they enter Reception, with regards to both their lives and abilities, Kay says. "All the children, despite their backgrounds, are expected to reach those outcomes at the end of Reception. That ignores complexity and diversity. The fact that teachers have such a short space of time to get children to that good level of development is an issue. The good level of development, I've found in my research, is the main focus of what the teachers are working towards."

Weight of accountability

This emphasis results from accountability pressures that can mean teachers face difficulties if too few children reach the desired level, Kay says. So, understandably, they focus their attention on meeting the requirements of the measurement.

But this means other elements are given less attention, sometimes to the extent of contradicting what teachers feel they should be covering. So, they end up doing things that aren't "in keeping or aligned with their own beliefs about how young children learn".

Kay recalls a teacher she spoke to for her research who was instructed to teach cursive writing. "The teacher really fought against it," Kay explains. "She said it wasn't going to work and wasn't appropriate for the children. She was basically told it was a non-negotiable. 'The whole school is doing it and you need to.' So, she had to go along with it."

The pressure comes from a policy approach that assumes "earlier is better", Kay argues, following the logic that "the sooner we start teaching children more formal outcomes, maths and literacy, the better that is going to be right the way up through school". But that isn't necessarily borne out by the facts.

"There is research out there to suggest that isn't always the case," Kay says. "It could actually be more damaging to children's self-esteem as learners if these more formal instrumental technical areas of learning are forced on children when they're not ready.

"What is probably getting pushed to one side is play and the more creative aspects of the curriculum. These things are being sidelined for the formal maths and literacy outcomes."

There's also the shifting of what good development looks like. When Kay started her teaching career, doubling and halving numbers were skills that were expected at the end of Year 1, whereas now they are required at the end of Reception. "There are certain actions, especially around maths and literacy, that have been pushed down so the outcomes are actually harder to reach now than they were say, seven or eight years ago," she says.

But there has been little critical explanation of why, which adds "another dimension to the problem". Instead, Kay argues for a more critical approach to what children must do to be deemed "school ready" and a more individualised approach to how they do it.

"If children are ready to write and ready to read, then by all means do that," she says. "Let's look at children on an individual basis. If we are trying to teach phonics and how to write sentences to children who can't actually articulate a sentence yet, we should be focusing on getting those foundational skills in place before we move children on.

"The fact that England has a school starting age, which I know is 5 in policy, but actually for most children is 4 due to the September intake, is a huge, huge issue. If we could look at that, and maybe if we could move the compulsory school age to 6, that might solve a lot of the issues that we see in the earlier foundation stage.

"The gift of time is something that we should be looking at giving to children."

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes and tweets @jon_severs; Zofia Niemtus is acting deputy commissioning editor and tweets @Zofcha

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline "Tes focus on… School readiness"

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