‘Good news; bad news’ on the educational front this term. Good news: extra funding to ensure that more 3 and 4 year olds can access 30 hours of provision a week. Bad news: the pot of £50m will create only 9,000 places across a possible 200 settings, initially in just six areas of ‘social mobility’. Even worse news: in my humble opinion, it’s all too little and too late. By which I do not mean that the government’s response is untimely: I mean that additional educational provision for children at the age of 4 or even 3 is rather too late for those most at risk from the impact of poverty.
It’s simple. For children to do well at school, to gain good qualifications and to succeed as socially and economically competent adults, we need to support them before they arrive at school. One of the most predictive factors in a child’s likelihood of educational success is the quality of their first 1001 days of life: from bump to birth to beyond. Skills development during the first three years of a child’s life happen at an accelerated rate – lots going on, lots to learn.
Children who routinely share books at home are far more likely to come to school with ‘age-related’ reading behaviours; children who don’t, quite obviously, won’t. Nor will they come with all the other skills supported by simple, book-sharing routines: a range of vocabulary; social and emotional skills developed by empathising with characters in a book; the ability to listen and respond, to consider and articulate their own opinions (‘How do you think Max felt when he saw his supper was still hot?’ ‘Which one of the wild things did you like the look of most?’). All of this undercover learning, from the rich brain-growing loam of a simple 15 minute story, gives our toddlers the best chance to succeed once they arrive at ‘big’ school. Imagine the even greater benefits if said child toddles off with their grown-up to the local library once a week and chooses some of these books for him/herself: independence of choice; articulation of selection; physical development in negotiating the different textures of pavement/path/library steps; chances to interact with other children. So much learning from a simple library visit with the benefits of a book to share too.
But it is not all about books: physical development is also key to life-long learning. Toddlers who are physically active have brains far better developed for learning than those who have been kept inert but safe, inside, coddled in a world of iPads and Kiddie-vision. Brains that have enjoyed a visit to the park and had to work out how to climb the steps of the slide without falling off; how to use arms/legs as props/stabilisers to ensure that rolling down a grassy bank is a brilliant, rather than bruising, experience; how to jump safely across the gap in the little park wall, where the bin used to be, to demonstrate super-heroic powers worthy of Spiderman – all these brains will be ready to access more structured learning required when they arrive at school at 3 or 4. If their early experiences, both inside and outside, have not helped the synaptic development of their neural pathways then they will be playing catch-up to close the gaps from the minute they put on their first school jumper.
I am much exercised by this topic of pre-school-school this week, as we celebrate the first anniversary of the Children’s Centre at school, working with parents in our neighbourhood to support their children’s learning from bump to birth. We also welcomed our second cohort of two year olds into the nursery. There we read books together, we went to the library, and came back via the park – parents, toddlers, babies and all. For more than half of the group this was the first time they had undertaken such an epic outing (the library is an eight-minute walk away; the park a scant five-minute stroll). Our families are not neglectful, but they are cautious; they are not forgetful about reading, but need to know that sharing a book with a child who cannot yet read is not a ‘silly thing to do’; they are not anti-open air activities but they need to understand that rolling down a grassy slope is not necessarily dangerous and dirty but actually fodder for the brain.
The sort of ordinary activities that many children and families consider to be part of family life are, quite simply, extraordinary for others. These are the families with gaps to be closed from the outset and who require more than the option (where it exists) of extra hours of provision at the age of 3. As a headteacher who is passionate about the underlying principles of CPRT, I believe it is our moral and educational duty to support these children before school, if we are to avoid handing out a multiplicity of labels stating ‘well below age-related’ when they arrive in nursery. As a Leeds headteacher, I am fortunate to work for a local authority which actively promotes the importance of ‘babies, brains and bonding’ as part of a city-wide Best Start plan for our families. A core part of the training for practitioners from a range of sectors is research around infant brain development, with the stark reminder that we must create opportunities for our babies and toddlers to learn.
N.B. If somebody at the back just muttered ‘Surestart’ please could they come and wait outside my office at lunchtime? ‘Use it or lose it’ indeed…
Sarah Rutty is Head Teacher of Bankside Primary School in Leeds, part-time Adviser for Leeds City Council Children’s Services, a member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance, and Co-ordinator of CPRT’s Leeds/West Yorkshire network. Read her previous blogs here.