A recent surge in private companies offering “skill and drill” school-readiness programs has been likened to “kindy bootcamps” by the media.
These programs typically run for one hour a week (with fees in the range of A$40 an hour) for small groups of around five children aged between two and five.
The programs are often housed within companies that also offer tutoring to school-age children. They are not regulated or accredited, as child care, preschool and kindergarten full-time programs are.
Parents with disposable incomes seem to be seeking out these add-on programs to ease their anxieties about their child’s future academic achievement and competitive entry into elite schools.
Flaws in these programs
These school-readiness programs generally have four main flaws.
1. Run by untrained teachers
Commercial school-readiness programs are largely run by people without early childhood teaching qualifications. Because they are not regulated, there are no qualification requirements.
There is no guarantee that the program will be delivered by someone who is a qualified teacher or has any training. They may just have had some training in their scripted program.
Some programs are facilitated by primary-trained teachers. However, such degrees are largely based on curriculum content, whereas early childhood qualifications specialise in the nuanced development, pedagogy, curricula, environments and relationships of early childhood to provide customised educational programs to meet individual children’s needs.
Attending a commercial school-readiness program is effectively like having someone with a first-aid certificate (granted they have had some training in the prescriptive program) treat your child’s long-term health-care needs instead of a doctor.
All licensed early childhood education and care services in Australia must have access to, or employ, at least one qualified full-time early childhood teacher (depending on child numbers). Funded kindergarten programs must be planned and delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher.
Internationally, there is strong evidence that higher specialised early childhood qualifications raise the quality of interaction and pedagogy in early childhood education and care. This enhances student educational outcomes.
2. ‘Readiness’ places pressure on children
The idea of “school readiness” places all the pressure on the child – who at this point is around four or five years old. But how do you really know when a child is ready?
Commercial school-readiness programs are designed to accelerate maturation. They do this through rote-learning-style drills to teach the alphabet, phonemes (letter sounds) and numbers.
In 1925, it was proposed that children matured based on internal predetermined timing of growth and maturation. Since then many developmental psychologists and learning theorists have argued and demonstrated that children’s growth and development are influenced by a number of factors. These include relationships, family resources and experiences, neighbourhood, community resources and responsive early childhood programs provided by qualified early childhood teachers.
3. Sole focus on literacy and numeracy
Commercial school-readiness programs are largely focused on learning literacy and numeracy. For example, in the Keep Learning program they learn blends through basal readers and worksheets. This is simply focusing on the alphabetic code (knowing the letters and their corresponding sounds).
A quality early childhood program will embrace a holistic approach which enhances children’s sense of identity, their capacity to look after themselves (dressing and feeding, for example), to plan, play and create with others, to show care and respect for others and the environment, to make choices, take risks, manage change and celebrate achievements. All this (and more) is achieved through provocative learning environments, child-initiated inquiries, intentional teaching and exploratory creative play.
4. Too few hours
Most of these commercial programs run for only one hour a week. That is not going to have a lasting impact. Young children learn through being immersed for ongoing periods (days, weeks, months) in purposefully designed early childhood environments, which provoke learning inquiries and offer opportunity for child-directed activity with open-ended materials guided by experienced early childhood teachers.
The United Nations Children’s Fund has set a global benchmark of 15 hours per week for preschool children aged four and five. Regular ongoing participation in programs provided by early childhood teachers has been proven to be most beneficial for learning outcomes.
School transition programs
The problem with such “bootcamps” is that they put the pressure on the child to fit in with school systems – and what they perceive as being “ready”.
Yet extensive research on starting school has identified that what really counts is schools working with early childhood and community services, neighbourhoods, children and families to facilitate children’s ongoing development as capable learners.
This involves schools taking the responsibility to plan for successful transitions for young children to school. They do so using community data (such as Australian Early Development Census Data) and getting to know children and families through early childhood and community services.
By making the effort to know and understand next year’s student cohort, schools can plan for responsive environments and effective teaching practices that meet the specific children’s needs.
National guidelines are available for transition to school. State education departments also provide transition-to-school guides and resources.
Community-facilitated transition programs aim to respond to each child’s strengths and challenges, and include children’s views as a way to inform the direction of the program.
As research tells us, children can make valuable contributions to transition programs that are educational for all involved.
Impact of quality early childhood education
Participation in a quality early childhood education program has consistently demonstrated developmental and academic benefits, with the greatest gains for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Data shows that children who have had at least a year of quality preschool education perform better in Year 3 NAPLAN and in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15-year-olds.