Ready for school? The importance of Early Years learning

Picture of girl playing with a toy guitar and words: Ready for school? The importance of early years learning

The issue of children arriving at school without being able to speak in full sentences and lacking basic age-appropriate skills is a growing problem for schools. Many of these children may not actually have any particular underlying SEND, but on average, government statistics show children from disadvantaged backgrounds are four months behind in their overall development at age five, growing to an additional six months by the age of 11. By the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers in overall attainment. This shows that getting a good start and early intervention are both vital.

The government has just launched a scheme to give free access to interactive learning apps to families from disadvantaged backgrounds to help support children’s early language and literacy and get them ready for school. Parents will be sent text prompts to pass on tips for learning such as counting plates and other simple, methods. How effective this is remains to be seen.

What is does underline though, is how important it is for a child to be engaged with learning from the start. Early Years expert, Sarah Skerman, is a regular contributor to our SNJ Let’s Talk about SEND Facebook group. She's also parent to a 19-year-old daughter with EDS and a 14 year old son with complex EDS, PoTs, and profound dyslexia, whom she home educated for four years while fighting for an appropriate placement.

She's written for us today about her professional experience of children and why getting your child into an Early Year Pre-school setting can be vital for school readiness.

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School at four: Ready or Not?

by Sarah Skerman

I’ve been working in the field of Early Years since I qualified as an NNEB back in the dark mists of the late 1980s. 

Over this time I’ve worked in a great many childcare environments and with many different families. Wealthy families, very poor families, families with a huge support network behind them and families who are on their own. Single mothers, single fathers, blended families, LGBTQ families, all families like yours and mine. 

In this capacity, I have met families with a wide variety of needs, and among them, those who have children who have either a diagnosis of disability, special educational need or ill health, or who are starting the journey into investigations - and everything around this. There is no ‘type’ of family that this applies to - pick any from the above or combination of them. 

My own son has a disabling chronic illness and also has Special Educational Needs. Due to his need for 24-hour care and support, I took a different step in my profession and registered as a childminder. This allows me the flexibility to be there for him, and to continue employment. 

So where is this going with getting children ‘School Ready’? 

For those who aren’t on the SEND journey school ready can still mean a big task. Many schools would rather children hadn’t been taught to read and write, but that instead they are competent at getting coats and shoes on, using a knife and fork, were toilet-trained, that they can settle and listen to an adult and follow basic instructions. 

Having worked in Early Years for so long, and experiencing this both as a professional and as a parent, I can put my hand on my heart and say that Early Years provides the best support in the whole of a child's educational experience. Early Years really do have measures in place to support all young children.

When I am inspected by Ofsed there’s no ‘organisation’ to hide behind. I can’t blame work colleagues, if my work isn’t up to standard it’s just me. If its not done properly, then I carry the can. There’s no time set aside in the day for this - its integrated throughout the day and then finished and scored once the children have gone home (unpaid!)  The expectations are high, and rightly so. 

This is not to undermine Nurseries or Pre-Schools - the standards they are expected to achieve are no different we are inspected under the same criteria.  This is my experience as a Childminder.

How we're monitored by Ofsted

Theres’s a lot of monitoring in Early Years, and its very detailed and centred on the individual child, rather than a group, or class. Here’s an example:

At my last inspection - last September I was asked to explain and give examples of every area including Education and Safeguarding, and how any concerns are raised and with who.

 I was asked ‘how' I would speak to parents about concerns, and how I would flag any SEND. I was asked who was involved in this, and how I would support parents and their children. I was expected to give examples of developmental norms and how this would be reflected in my Early Years practice. I had to give examples of my Early Years teaching and learning practice and how this was adapted to the needs of the individual children, those who were very able and those who were not reaching their potential. 

 I was asked to give examples, and examples from my own practice of how I had adapted my provision. I was asked how this was implemented and how I tracked the child's progress. I was expected to know who, and how to flag any concerns regarding a lack of progress educationally, physically, developmentally, socially and emotionally. How would I talk to parents who either didn’t understand or couldn’t/wouldn't acknowledge any additional need? 

I had an observation (based upon the learning objectives and needs of the individual child) of an activity and this was assessed for effectiveness. This observation was assessed for any adaptations I had made to allow for any additional needs of the children involved. 

The children’s daily diaries were inspected and their progress reports and observations were read, together with the scoring of their needs on the Characteristics of Effective Learning and their Developmental Progress. This was checked to ensure there was no ‘cut and paste’ and that every child's entry was individual to them. 

I was asked about my communication with parents and how I flag and support any early intervention, and how I work cooperatively with these agencies to provide the best wrap around care and support for the child and their families. I have to show how I track this cooperation and how the childs’ progress is scored and recorded and fed back to the agencies involved. My Ofsted inspection result refers to me, it's not an overview.  A school gets an overview, but do we know our own child’s teachers score? 

Tracking learning in Early Years

You may have heard of the Integrated Progress Review. It has replaced the old two, and later three, year check. It's designed to pick up on any concerns from the child's parents, Health Visitors, Childminders/ Nursery/ Pre-School and any intervention or therapists who may already be involved. 

This form is filled out by the parents and HV, and then sent by encrypted email to the Childminder, Pre-School or Nursery to fill out. 

We are required to fill out this form detailing the child's progress, strengths and weaknesses. How we are supporting them, and if we think further intervention or support would be useful. This is all backed up with the information gained by the observations we are required to regularly undertake on the child and the scores attained by this. 

This is then available to the parents and is then sent to the child's school. It's effectively their support passport, highlighting where the child is now and if there are any areas that would benefit from early intervention, both before school and in Foundation Stage. 

I use an app to communicate with parents that sends daily information directly to their email, every evening at 9pm. They can also use their own log-in to access information about the child' daily activities, what they've eaten, their sleep, toileting, activities and the Characteristics of Effective Learning from these activities as well as photos from the day. 

The app is also used to record observations and to track and score the child's developmental progress, highlighting where a child isn’t hitting their developmental norms. It allows you to state clearly how you are supporting progress and provides you with a platform to flag any concerns in a way that isn’t critical to the individual child, but supportive. It’s based upon child development, and the scoring is achieved by the app. It celebrates achievements and shows where additional support would be useful/needed. 

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When a child has extra needs

This supports the (in my case) childminder to have the conversation with the parent about seeking some more support, should this be necessary. It helps with early intervention that enables both the child and the parent to understand and move forward with their child's needs. As we know, achieving support is all about proving the need. If you can have a tracked and documented history of your child’s early years, you already have that proof, should it be required. It’s then the job of Early Years providers to work alongside therapists and intervention to support the child and the parents. 

It’s not easy for any parent to hear that there are concerns about any aspect of their child's development or health. It needs a careful and considered approach. The stereotypes don’t always match. I’ve had parents who fulfil the stereotypes of ‘needing help’ - single parents with no or little income,  struggling themselves, who are the most supportive and forward-thinking for their child. Then there are those with huge houses, two parents in high income jobs who brush aside any concerns and dismiss and refuse any intervention. 

Early Years are required to track, support and highlight children's progress. We support parents, we have set pathways to follow that can lead to a child with language delay, for example - achieving a SaLT assessment and support. We have a close relationship with the child and their parents/guardians. We work together and have the child at the centre of everything. 

The change when the child gets to school can come as a huge shock. A parent often cannot believe the difference. In the 30 years that I have been involved in childcare, my profession has evolved and changed with the needs of the child. Previous practices have been changed, adapted and improved. This has, and does work remarkably well. 

It is my belief that this needs to be transferred well into Foundation Stage and into teaching as a whole. A full and thorough knowledge of child development and developmental norms, child psychology and a full and comprehensive understanding and knowledge of SEND should the foundation of every teacher's training. It shouldn’t be an add on, or a ‘course’, it should underpin everything. 

Just as I am accountable for more than just ‘looking after a child’, teachers should have a holistic approach to understanding the whole child. A school ready child needs their school to be ‘child ready’ - they need to understand that at this age, differences in ability are beginning to show, and this can be because there are developmental delays, and it’s not down to bad parenting or lazy children.  Depending on a SENDCo isn’t enough. Every teacher should have a SENDCO training that enables them to better identify and support every child. According to the Department of Education in January 2018, the number of children with SEND increased from 1,244,255 in January 2017 to 1,276,215 in January 2018, a increase from 14.4% to 14.6%. Of these only 253,680 have an EHCP. 

On internet forums, I parents who are teachers asking ‘How do I get my child assessed for an EHCP?’. I know teachers who have no idea of how many children in their secondary school classes have EHCPs; teachers who don't understand dyslexia. This is the fault of the training and the entrenched belief that ‘it’s not our job’. If a teacher hasn’t the knowledge of how to achieve an EHCP for their own child, what does that say for a child in their class? What do they say to a parent of a child in their class who feels their child needs additional support? Is it just the job of a SENDCo? I don’t believe it is. Sorry, but it’s part of your job too, or should be, your job needs to evolve just as mine has. 

Early Years support often isn't carried through to school

Those children who started off with all that support in Early Years end up struggling, and with their parents fighting for an appropriate education. My job has evolved to make this happen, Early Years have taken on this role, so why not the next stages on?

I may start work at 07:00 am, and have the children go home at 18:00. I may (and do!) get less than the minimum wage for this. I do have to continue to do this work in my own time in the evening in order to get the information recorded. I don’t get long paid holidays -so those arguments mean nothing to me. For me, it's about the profession I chose and about the integrity of that; it’s about ensuring that the children have the best possible start. 

Surely if a ‘one man band’ Childminder is expected to provide a high level of identification and support, this should be happening in schools too. It's all about enabling the child to be as ‘school ready’ as possible, and to ensure that every child is able to access an educational environment which is ready for them. 

This may look like I’m bashing teachers - I’m not, I have many friends who are teachers, but are frustrated that they feel that they do not have the skills or knowledge to support children with additional needs in the way that they feel they should. This is due to training - not the person. Just because something has always been done in a certain way - doesn’t mean it's the only way. 

Children with additional needs need early identification, early intervention and support and deserve to be in the class with the teacher. The ‘kind helper’ or less qualified TA should be with the children who are able, and the teacher with those who need more help.

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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