Learnings on school readiness

Jess Brown
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pilot scheme improved young children's transition to formal education through collaboration and involving families.

Department for Education research has found that half of five-year-olds do not have the basic skills needed to start formal education, with disadvantaged children less likely to be “school-ready” than their better off peers.

Work by Ofsted has also shown that many of those who start school behind their peers developmentally are unlikely to have caught up by the time they leave formal education.

Policymakers see improving school readiness – as defined by government (see box) – as a key factor in the battle to close the attainment gap.

A model recently tested by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey) brought together schools, childcare settings and local authorities to develop a more collaborative way of preparing children for school.

Areas of deprivation

The one-year Starting School Together project, which started in May 2015, was backed with £350,000 from the DfE’s voluntary sector grant programme. It involved children from 120 families who were soon to start reception class in four schools in deprived areas of Skipton in North Yorkshire, and Littleport in Cambridgeshire.

“We wanted to try a new approach that was collaborative, and focused around individual children,” says Liz Bayram, Pacey’s chief executive.

“Local authorities worked with us at the point where families were told what school their child would be attending that September.

“We then worked with the local authority to identify those families and children, and the childcare setting they were in, and contacted the setting and schools to work together on a shared transition plan.”

The schools had regional co-ordinators, who organised events to bring families and staff together, and school staff also visited children in their childcare settings.

Bayram says the co-ordinators were the “lynchpin” of the project.

“They pulled all the different communities together and held meetings locally for families, so they got to meet the teachers and families from other childcare settings who are all going to the same school,” she adds.

Parents were given access to an online toolkit with information on their child’s progress, as well as a booklet on how to prepare their child for school.

“Settings had additional resources including dress-up games for putting uniforms on – all the things that get children thinking about school,” explains Bayram.

In addition, all children were given a bear called Jofli – short for “journey of life” – to take to their new school.

“They took the bears with them on their adventures getting ready for school, and had a little adventure diary in which they wrote down things they had done,” Bayram says.

“All these things helped schools and childcare settings to have a shared view of the child, what stage they were at and what needed to be done to support them into the first year of school. That had not been done before in that way.

“There was a real sense of building that community in advance of everyone arriving at reception in September.”

The children, she says, were positive, confident and emotionally ready. “It was because the children knew the school, so it was not a strange environment,” Bayram says.

An evaluation by University College London’s Institute of Education found that 87 per cent of staff that were involved in the pilot said they would like it to continue.

Three-quarters of parents said they would recommend the project, while 95 per cent said they felt they were involved in getting their child school-ready.

The evaluation report reinforced the finding that the co-ordinators were “integral” to the success of the pilot and would be a key part of ensuring success for future rollout of the programme.

Staff from the schools involved in the pilot gave positive feedback.

Deborah Hannaford, head teacher at Millfield Primary School in Cambridgeshire, says it was “positive all round”.

“The children were noticeably more confident and more self-assured when they started school, engaging really well in activities and quickly developing relationships with other children in the setting,” she says.

Ellen Woodthorpe, head teacher at Skipton Primary School in North Yorkshire, says the project helped children build their confidence, wellbeing and readiness to engage and learn at school.

“It also helps the school to know the children better as they begin to start their learning journey at their new school,” she adds.

Lack of time

But despite the co-ordinators’ best efforts, staff reported that finding time to work with other professionals and families was a challenge, as was getting parents to engage.

Some also raised the timing of the pilot as an issue. Bayram says the decision to start the pilot in May was due to the availability of funding. However, feedback suggested it would have been more effective to have started the project earlier in the year.

Despite these issues, Pacey believe the evaluation findings support the wider use of the model.

For the pilot, the co-ordinators were employed by Pacey on a part-time basis. However, the charity is looking at a number of models for the expansion of the programme, including early years professionals taking on the role.

“We want to move on from the pilot to build it up,” says Bayram. “We will be talking with schools and councils. We’ve got evidence it works, the tools for helping school to do this and the willingness to work with partners to make it happen.

“There are real opportunities around how early years settings and schools can work together.”

Definition of school-ready

Expectations in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) include:

  • Seventeen “early learning goals”, measuring a child’s abilities around communication and language, and physical development
  • Literacy and maths skills, and how well a child understands the world

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