I’ve been a teacher for 25 years and a Headteacher for 12. In all that time there hasn’t been enough political recognition or bravery which is required to provide a long term improvement in the lives of our most deprived children.
What it was like as a social worker in the 1980’s
Many years ago in the early 1980’s, before training to be a teacher, I worked as a social worker. I helped to run an outreach centre for young families, where they could socialise and receive any support they needed. I also worked in the attached children’s home for young people who had just been released from Young Offenders institutions or had been evicted from their homes by their families. It was a tough call for a young man who had not seen very much of the real world at that time and I grew up quickly during the year that I worked there.
Part of my job was to visit families to offer support and I saw and experienced many things which challenged my then limited view about how most people lived. I saw for myself households with no books or toys, where adult communication with children barely occurred and where children were mainly left to themselves. One house in particular really shocked me and I can still see it in my mind’s eye today. Structurally it was in good condition and it looked well maintained from the outside. However on entering it was like walking into a desert. The spacious rooms were empty of all but a few pieces of furniture and the floor was filthy. On the floor, on his own, sat a two year old boy in just a nappy with not a toy in sight and he was watching the biggest television I had ever seen. The television looked very new, and was in such stark contrast to the rest of the child’s barren, empty environment, that the image was seared into my memory. It was only a snapshot, perhaps unrepresentative, but my world view changed a little that day. I often wonder what that child is doing now. He would be in his 30’s today.
Many children still start school without basic skills
It is a sad fact that, as teachers, we often come across children who have had very limited experiences of the world when they start school. Schools admit children who are not potty trained, are unable to socialise appropriately and who don’t get enough sleep due to chaotic home circumstances. Many have never been read a story or have never even handled a book. The aim is to try and make up the shortfall for these deprived pupils by providing a rich curriculum full of stimulating activities and new experiences. This is of course a very important part of trying to improve the life chances for these pupils but the research indicates that, already, at the age of 4, it will be much more difficult to make up for these missed experiences. Children will learn and progress more easily if they already have an efficient network of ‘pathways’ in their brains when they start school. Those who start with a disadvantage may be burdened with it all through school and into their adult lives.
The development of neurons in the brain
Here I need to add a little science to make my point. As many people know, brain development, or learning, is actually, physically, the process of creating, strengthening, and discarding connections among neurons or nerve cells in the brain. These connections are called synapses and they organize the brain by forming pathways that connect the parts of the brain, governing everything we do. The development of synapses occurs at an astounding rate during children’s early years, in response to the young child’s experiences. At its peak, the brain of a healthy toddler may create 2 million synapses per second! An under stimulated brain will have a less developed network of connections which will make it more difficult for the owner of that brain to progress through each developmental stage. Effectively stimulation provides the foundation for learning.
By not focussing sufficiently on the many children who are deprived of stimulation in their early years is storing up all sorts of problems for the future and currently we have a national system of education which is biased towards the later years of a person’s school life. It is designed to resolve the problems later rather than to prevent them happening in the first place.
The government’s own 2011 report recommended early intervention
In Graham Allen’s 2011 report to the government on early intervention he recommends that the period of a child’s life from 0-5, including pregnancy, should be given at least as much status as Primary educational phase and the Secondary educational phase. Just a brief look at the research seems to support this view since, if we get it wrong from the beginning, we will always be playing catch up.
So many of the problems faced by schools, social services and indeed police forces, are exacerbated because they are trying to intervene at a late stage when much damage has already been done. There are four year old pupils starting their school life who have never had a story read to them and who are barely taken out of the immediate area in which they live; who have never seen a real sheep or a cow and who are left for long periods of time with only a television, computer or tablet to entertain them. These children, unsurprisingly, find it difficult to communicate; they’ve barely had to before, and they find social situations such as sharing or playing with others, stressful and confusing.
The impact of early intervention and what happens if you cut services for preschool children
Research shows that a child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years. In other words, getting it right early is enormously important if children are to make the progress that we all want for them in life. This may seem obvious but it is not currently reflected in national policy, which has resulted in the forced closure of services designed to support very young children and their families.
The challenge for the future
Those who lead in Councils, and in schools, are well aware of the need to invest in early intervention. Councils can’t do much about national political decisions on funding, but schools and other agencies can do something about raising awareness of the school readiness problem and taking action to improve the situation. There needs to be a greater linking of services at a local level, including schools, greater communication between schools and preschools. The preschool phase of education, with huge numbers of privately run nurseries, needs to be viewed as being just as important as the later phases. Otherwise we will always be trying to repair the damage, rather than preventing it happening in the first place.
Paul Stockley is Headteacher at Bradway Primary School and Chair of The Primary Leaders’ Partnership in Sheffield.