Nearly half of children are not developmentally ready for Reception, teachers have reported.
This means that some children are starting school unable to eat independently, use the toilet or communicate clearly – but nearly nine in 10 parents believe their children are ready to start school, a study suggests.
On average, primary school teachers report that only 54% of children in their Reception classes were developmentally ready for school when they began.
Teachers believe the problem of school readiness is “growing”, a report from early years charity Kindred2 suggests, but most parents of Reception pupils say that their child is “school ready”.
A survey of more than 1,000 primary school teachers in the UK during October and November 2022 found that on average teachers believe 46% of children were not developmentally ready for Reception.
Teachers expect children to be sufficiently independent, able to use the toilet, dress and feed themselves when entering Reception, as well as have basic social, written and verbal skills, the report says.
But nearly three in five (59%) teachers report that the number of children who are developmentally behind is either higher or the same as in previous years, according to the poll by YouGov and Kindred2.
A separate poll of more than 1,000 parents of children who started Reception in September 2022 found that 89%, who answered yes or no, said their child was “ready for school”.
The report warns that “limited school readiness” has meant that schools need more staff to be able to support children to focus on basic developmental tasks, such as being able to dress and go to the toilet.
Heather Thorne, headteacher of Beccles Primary Academy in Suffolk, said issues with school readiness have “got worse” in recent years, with some children entering Reception still in nappies.
She told the PA news agency: “It does put extra challenges on the staff in early years because of the time taken and the safeguarding of people changing nappies and things like that.”
Parents at the school are given a “helpful hints” document – with a number of suggested activities to get children ready – before pupils start Reception to “alleviate some of the problems”, the headteacher added.
Encouraging children to put their coats, socks and shoes on independently, as well as recognising their own name, all feature in the guide.
Ms Thorne told PA: “Probably the first term is spent very much doing personal development and getting those children in a position where they can cope with being able to learn.
“We use nursery as a really good starting point to get our children ready for Reception which helps, but there is still a long way to go and the children certainly do enter very low in things like toilet training and independent skills.”
A senior teacher in the West Midlands said: “Teachers often can’t get down to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of teaching the curriculum because they’re doing things like changing wet children, dealing with emotional outbreaks etc.
“Many of our Reception staff, especially this autumn term, have missed out on their lunches and thus their prep time due to supporting children who can’t feed themselves.”
More than nine in 10 teachers report having at least one child in class who is not toilet trained (91%) or who do not have basic language skills (93%) – such as being unable to say their name.
The survey suggests 89% of teachers have at least one child in their class who cannot eat independently.
A teacher in the West Midlands said: “Staff in our school are being pushed to their limit at the moment. Lots of children not toilet trained means two members of staff are having to be released from classes to change a child each time they have an accident.”
Among the teachers who reported a higher proportion of children arriving at school not developmentally ready, 66% said they believe that less time spent in nursery during lockdowns has played a role.
Teachers identified parents spending more time on electronic devices than with their children and not reading to their children as other factors contributing to the school readiness problem.
Some parents assumed it was a school’s responsibility to teach basic skills, like toileting and dressing, the report suggests, but teachers noted that many parents “lack understanding and knowledge” about the key developmental milestones that their children are expected to make in the preschool years.
Felicity Gillespie, director of Kindred2, said: “Too many children are behind before they begin because as a nation we are not prioritising the raising of children at the very time in their lives when their brains are most receptive to stimulation and interaction with older children and adults.
“We perpetuate a failure to inform, a lack of support and underfunding that would be unthinkable in the rest of the education sector. We allow this in spite of our knowledge that preschool development is an accurate predictor of later life attainment and health. School readiness is not just an early years issue.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise that the early years of a child’s life are crucial, which is why we’re investing millions in early years recovery over the next three years, including programmes focused on improving children’s speech, language and communication skills.
“We are already seeing children making encouraging progress with two thirds of primary schools using the Nuffield Early Languages Intervention programme along with nearly three million tutoring courses started through the National Tutoring Programme.”
James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union the NAHT, said “The pandemic and lockdowns have undoubtedly had an impact on the development of some children and led to additional demand being placed on already overstretched services.
“The government needs to invest much more in specialist and universal early years services for disadvantaged families and massively expand its new network of family hubs so all families that need them have access.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Poverty can also have a significant impact on a child’s development.
“Where families are juggling jobs to make ends meet and can only access limited free childcare, children are more likely to miss out on crucial early years learning.
“The solution is more Government investment in high-quality and free early years education for pre-school children – this is a proven intervention which greatly improves long-term educational outcomes – and in support for families.”