by Helen Victoria Smith
Making sure children have the right opportunities for learning and development in their earliest years so they can be ‘school-ready’ has been a key part of successive UK governments’ approaches to raising educational achievement and promoting economic progress. But concerns around large numbers of children arriving at school without the skills they need to succeed have been steadily growing.
Based on a study in a small town in the East Midlands, my research revealed how mothers of children under five and early years’ professionals understood the concept of ‘school readiness’ and how this shaped what they did.
I found that the way support was offered to and experienced by mothers was different depending on the places they went. As a result, children from particular families were less likely to achieve the ‘school readiness’ required for academic success.
The professionals working in the Children’s Centres talked about how children from families (particularly those living in one of the two social housing estates) were not ‘school-ready’. They painted a picture of children starting school in nappies, unable to use a knife and fork. They blamed this on parents for putting children in front of the television from a very young age, giving them dummies, and not talking or reading to them.
These views shaped the way support was offered to parents who were seen to be ‘deficient’ and lacking in knowledge. Mothers were given a ‘learning journey’ to complete with photographs of their child engaging in activities related to the different areas of learning, or as evidence that they had reached a particular milestone. This was also formally tracked and kept on record, so if a child was failing to meet a particular milestone extra support could be put in place.
Instruction for the mothers usually took place away from the children, who were looked after in a crèche. Mothers, rather than the children, were made the focus of teaching.
However, many of the groups suffered from low attendance figures, and those who turned up often fell away before the course was finished. Professionals expressed concern that they were not always able to engage the mothers whom they felt would benefit most.
It appeared that the way support was offered in the Children’s Centres alienated parents and had no direct benefit to their children.
Despite the emphasis on the importance of parents in getting their children ‘school-ready’, the courses stopped once children turned two as it was expected that a preschool would step in at this point.
This institutional approach to early education was promoted over the more informal learning that could be supported in the home and gave mothers mixed messages. On the one hand mothers were taught to take responsibility for getting their child ‘school-ready’; on the other hand, it seemed their role was less important once their child was enrolled in preschool.
In contrast, mothers who visited the public library or private parent and child classes were offered support very differently.
Unlike in the Children’s Centres, children, not mothers, were the focus. Instead of being separated from each other, they were encouraged to interact and experience what was on offer together. Activities such as singing, moving and using different props were modelled by the professionals and designed to engage the children, enhance their learning and increase their ‘school readiness’. Mothers were not given specific tasks to do or asked questions to check their understanding or to find out what they did at home with their child. Monitoring their or their child’s performance was of little concern.
Professionals worked on the assumption that mothers already recognised some of the benefits for their children’s learning.
My research showed that the mothers in these settings did continue similar activities at home. Rather than seeing the ‘experts’ as solely responsible for getting their child ready for school, mothers in these settings were also more likely to continue supporting their child’s learning once they were enrolled in a preschool. In this way, their children were more likely to achieve the ‘school readiness’ seen as necessary for educational achievement.
Practices and policies need to change to ensure all children have a positive start to school and all parents feel empowered to support their children’s learning. I hope that my research will help policymakers and service providers to organise community resources more equitably so that young children can encounter a more level playing field when they start school and achieve educational success.
Dr Helen Victoria Smith is a former primary school teacher and further education lecturer. She now works as an Assistant Professor (Primary Education) at the University of Nottingham, having recently completed her doctorate. As well as being involved in various initial teacher education programmes, she is busy writing several papers from her thesis, which is titled ‘Place, Policy and Pedagogy: A literacy ethnography of a small town’. Helen’s research interests include families’ experiences of educational spaces and resources, and family literacy practices.
You can follow @SmithHelenVic on Twitter.
This blog is based on the article ‘Ready for school?’ which originally appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Society Now.