What the Times Education Commission has been able to do is to ask those difficult questions that perhaps all of us working in education would prefer to avoid because, let’s be frank, they’re just very hard to answer.
When a third of businesses surveyed by the Commission say that their workforce is lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, and when our own survey published in the spring found that, on average, half of all children were not ready to start school; then we really do need to be asking — and answering — some serious, thorny questions.
When we have clear problems in attainment at both ends of the education pipeline, when starting school and embarking on a career, then I believe the word crisis is absolutely appropriate. For me, the answers to easing that crisis lie in improving the life chances of many of those between birth and four years old.
A few basic facts about human development help shine a spotlight on the situation. At birth, the brain has reached about 25 per cent of its ultimate development. By the age of three, it’s 80 per cent and that’s before children have even encountered a classroom or a teacher. Most of the brain is developed before a baby can talk.
By the age of five, 85 per cent of a child’s language is in place. This is the age at which many children first start to be introduced to the English language at their school. We are not starting with a blank canvas when “education” is officially initiated; most of the paint has dried and for too many, it’s incredibly hard to shift.
So, if disadvantage sets in early, it tends to sink in deeply. A child’s development score as young at 22 months is an all too accurate predictor of where they will be educationally at the age of 26.
Some 40 per cent of the attainment gap that can be seen at the age of 16 is already in place before those children even start school at the age of five.
By the age of three, most disadvantaged children are, on average, already more than 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers. They are beginning life with an invisible ball and chain attached to them.
The blunt reality is that our neglect of the early years means that more children are behind before they begin. In our recent report published this spring, nine out of ten of the teachers we spoke to could identify at least one pupil in their incoming class at five years old with language skills that were so badly underdeveloped that they could not articulate their name or answer even very simple questions. During one-on-one interviews conducted alongside our survey, some teachers told researchers that the majority of their new pupils were developmentally very far behind expectations for their age, for instance, not toilet trained, struggling to socialise with other children, express themselves or understand basic instructions.
All of which have immense implications for the individuals concerned and for society at large. It is this waste of human potential that is the real reason why nations such as South Korea and Estonia are ahead of us.
Research and our own experiences strongly suggest that if you are not ready for school aged five, the chances are you will fall behind throughout your school career and then in life.
None of the above is new or unknown but it’s almost as if the state is silent until children reach the age of five.
We are mid-way through exam season, always an important time for young people, but after three years of cancelled exams, this year takes on a new significance. Success will mostly be measured by the numbers who get the grades at A Level to get into university. This is why the “debate” over which target to adopt for higher education, is one that verges on the farcical. The sort of children who haven’t had a fair crack at the whip at such a young age are not likely to be at the front of the queue either for a degree course or to get onto a much sought-after apprenticeship.
It will be 15 years this summer since Tony Blair stood down as prime minister. For many of those taking A levels now, to a very large extent, they will have already have had their future prospects set back in 2007. This is not an outcome that he or anyone else, including his critics, should be proud of. The target we need is that by 2030 as close to 100 per cent as possible of children who start school at the age of five are ready to even begin the education that’s right for them.
At Kindred Squared we don’t want to be another voice just calling for more funding. We think it’s how we invest in education. Every pound spent on Early Years saves the state £13 pounds in later catch-up interventions. We want to see more innovation, which is why we’ve started rolling out lessons developed by Oxford University to secondary schools to teach young people about the rapid brain development of babies and how that defines good parenting. We’re educating pupils before they become parents or carers.
This isn’t about just blaming parents either. We all want the best for our children, whatever our circumstances, but we must be asking about the infrastructure and support for parents and carers that need it most. Could we be doing more to spell out what being “school ready” means especially when the neuroscience has improved so much in the last two decades? Could we better target what we already spend to deliver a bigger bang for our buck?
We really need a new national conversation about the vital importance of Early Years.
Felicity Gillespie is director of Kindred Squared