Early-years education series: Are our children ready to learn?

Published on Wednesday, 04 December 2013 00:00
Written by Janette Cook-Hannah

This is the second article in our series on Early-years education. Here Janette Cook-Hannah, a Headteacher talks about how and when children are ready to learn and why getting that right can make all the difference. To see the first article in this series, click here. 

"Those who succeed and those who fail are not even measured by intelligence. Those who are developmentally ready do well; those who are not may fall into a spiral of decline so profound it has been called the Matthew effect after Matthew 13: 'Whosever hath to him shall be given; whosever hath not from him shall be taken.'"

These words were used in a Dispatches programme titled 'Too Much Too Young' (1997) and struck such a profound chord with me. The programme was the result of a two year study of the impact of formal learning on our very young children.

Unfortunately, we appear to be no further on, with Government policies driving the start of formal learning still earlier. Education policy makers still refuse to listen to what the vast majority of early years teachers, experts in how young children learn and develop, are saying. Formal learning, if children are not ready, is damaging for our children. For the first time in their lives some of our children experience failure, a failure from which some may never recover. They become alienated from learning and start to believe it is something that isn't for them. According to the DFE 2012, 20% of children in the UK are now registered as having special educational needs – five times higher than the EU average.

For some politicians, and education policy makers, it makes common sense to start earlier. The gap between the highest performing children and the lowest is widening, so surely starting earlier will enable them to catch up. But we only have to look to other countries to see that this is not the case. Instead of spending time developing the crucial skills needed for formal learning; allowing our children to develop socially and emotionally; teaching them how to listen carefully through a structured programme; developing their oracy through high quality talking time; developing balance and co-ordination through physical interaction with the environment; our early years teachers struggle to teach our very young children to read and write and our children struggle to learn.

This begs the question then, what about our more able children? What about those children who are ready? Again, we need only to look to other countries where children start formal learning much later, to see that more able children are in no way disadvantaged. Since introducing a more developmentally appropriate curriculum in my own school, we have seen an increase in the percentage of children attaining at the higher levels, at Key Stage 1, for writing. From 2009 to 2013 the average percentage attaining Level 3 was 27% and 61% at Level 2A+; compared to results between 2005 and 2008 when the average percentage attaining Level 3 was 12% and Level 2A+ was 41%.
We know it is working.

What if children's success at school is fundamentally dependent on whether they are developmentally ready to access the curriculum being offered? What if the tail of underachievement is a result of starting formal learning too soon? Can we really take the risk of not investigating this further?

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