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Medicine is advancing quickly…education needs to catch up

Preterm children often have unique learning needs – but schooling is lagging behind the science on this

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Science is magnificent. And the advances in medical science are truly amazing, especially in terms of babies born preterm (defined as before 37 weeks).

Survival rates for babies born between 22 and 26 weeks of gestation have risen in recent years. According to the charity Tommy’s, there is a 19 per cent chance of survival at 23 weeks. This, however, increases to an incredible 77 per cent at 26 weeks.

Some 60,000 babies are born early every year. This means that there will be two-to-three such children in an average primary class.

One such child is shadow education secretary Angela Rayner’s youngest son, Charlie, who is now 10. He was born at 23 weeks, weighing just under 1lb. He survived against the odds, but it left him blind and with special educational needs.

Rayner, like every parent, wants the best support for her child. “I want the schools to nurture him and for him to reach his full potential,” she told the Guardian a couple of months ago.

“I don’t want a rigid system that says you’re not going to be a grade-A student so we need to off-roll you.”

Two in three children born extremely preterm will have learning difficulties and will need help at school. But those born later, between 28 and 37 weeks, can also face challenges in their education. Research suggests prematurity can have a significant effect on how a child learns and the level of support they will need in the classroom.

For schools, this brings challenges. Teachers have little knowledge about the specific learning difficulties that children born preterm are likely to face, or about the strategies that can be used to support them. School policy and teacher training are simply not keeping pace with the science.

It’s wonderful that children are now surviving who would not have survived 20 years ago, but we have to be able to support them by providing them with the same standard of education that any one of their full-term peers could expect to receive.

To make sure this happens, schools need to know how to support them. They need to understand the effects of preterm birth on how children learn, and they need specific tools and strategies that will help them to counteract those effects. This means that teachers need proper training in this area, and schools need guidance to help them provide that training.

They also need to know when they have preterm children in their classes. It is, of course, understandable that parents are wary of singling out their children as “different” and will want to protect them from the stigma of entering school with a dreaded “label”.

But the fact is that schools and teachers cannot teach “in the dark”, says Barry Carpenter, a professor at Oxford Brookes University, who was director of the now-completed Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities research project. They need to be told when they have preterm children in their care. The difficulties these children experience can be subtle and can be easily misinterpreted. We should not rely on a teacher’s intuition to uncover them, he says.

Carpenter believes there should be a question on the admissions form of every school that asks: “Is there anything in the birth history of this child that we need to know?”

That seems to be the sensible way forward. If we want the best possible schooling for all pupils, knowing about the circumstances of a child’s birth is vital.

Medicine is amazing – and it’s moving ahead in leaps and bounds. Our challenge now is to make sure that education is, too.

@AnnMroz