The first day of school is a momentous event in the life of a child. For many it is a day filled with pride and excitement. For others it is more stressful; they may cling to their parents, unused to being parted for so long.
In England, these extremes of experience are particularly marked because of the very young age at which children start formal schooling. Children begin school in the year in which they turn five, meaning that many children start school shortly after their fourth birthdays. England is unusual in this regard; in 31 out of 37 European countries children do not start formal education until they are at least six.
The age at which children start school may not matter as much as what happens to them once they get to the classroom. Given our backgrounds in developmental psychology and speech-language therapy, we think the current targets set for children in their first year at school are not developmentally appropriate. Our research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry demonstrates that the youngest children in the class find these targets particularly challenging.
England has a curriculum for Early Years Foundation Stage, which outlines developmental goals from birth to five years old. This includes three prime areas of learning such as personal, social and emotional development; physical development; communication and language; as well as specific areas of learning such as maths and literacy.
In 2012, the New Early Years Foundation Stage Profile was introduced, to document attainment at the end of the early years curriculum. The profile is completed by the teacher at the end of the first year in school, and children are assessed on the extent to which they meet or exceed expected progress on 12 key targets across these areas of learning. Those making expected progress are deemed to have achieved a “good level of development”. Here are a few of the key targets:
Understanding: children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer “how” and “why” questions about their experiences and in response to stories or events.
Health and self-care: children know the importance for good health of physical exercise, and a healthy diet, and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe.
Writing: They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.
Numbers: children count reliably with numbers from one to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number. They solve problems, including doubling, halving and sharing.
Government statistics confirm a 22% attainment gap between the oldest and the youngest children in the reception year. It is therefore not surprising that there have been calls to adjust the assessments at the end of the reception year for age, so that at least on paper, younger children are not disadvantaged.
Half of all children don’t meet the targets
But our study highlights a much bigger issue. We sampled more than 7,000 children in mainstream reception classrooms in Surrey, a relatively affluent county in south-east England. Across this population, only 57% of children achieved a “good level of development”, comparable to national estimates of 52%. If half the children in the country can’t meet the targets, we argue that perhaps the targets are wrong.
Yet age is not the only, or even the most important, factor in predicting academic success in the reception year. In our study, there were other things that contributed to poorer academic progress: being a boy, living in more impoverished neighbourhoods, speaking more than one language, and displaying more behavioural difficulties.
However, oral language – such as vocabulary, grammar and story-telling skills – was the most important predictor of progress on curriculum targets. This is because the curriculum requires children to listen, comprehend, explain themselves and use words to solve problems. In our study, twice as many younger children were reported to have poor language skills at school entry, relative to their oldest peers. And fewer than 5% children with low language proficiency achieved a good level of development on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile.
Years of research has also told us that language is the foundation for literacy. Children arriving at school with lower levels of oral language proficiency, for whatever reason, are therefore at a distinct disadvantage for learning.
Don’t set children up for failure
We suggest that focusing the first reception year on developing children’s oral language abilities may help to attenuate the attainment gaps experienced by younger children. It is also possible that a focus on oral language will narrow the gap for children from impoverished communities and those who are learning English as an additional language. We predict that ensuring a good foundation in oral language will also improve reading and writing in later school years, even for the oldest children in the class.
Literacy targets, particularly writing, have been introduced at ever younger ages in an effort to improve standards, but we fear this may do more harm than good. Asking children to engage in tasks that are developmentally out of their reach increases frustration and experience of failure. Many of the children that we have followed up over time tell us at the tender age of six, that they “aren’t good at reading” or they “can’t do writing.” This is a tragedy.
We need to develop children’s oral language skills early and leave formal classroom instruction until children have the foundation skills they need to achieve. This should raise the attainments, and esteem, of all children.