Large numbers of children arrive at school without the skills they need to succeed. Practices and policies need to change to ensure all children have a positive start to school and all parents feel empowered to support their children's learning.

By Helen Victoria Smith, Assistant Professor (Primary Education), University of Nottingham

Making sure children have the right opportunities for learning and development in their earliest years so they can be 'school-ready' has been a key part of successive UK governments' approaches to raising educational achievement and promoting economic progress. But concerns around large numbers of children arriving at school without the skills they need to succeed have been steadily growing. These have been exacerbated by government data which show a persistent attainment gap between poorer children and their better-off peers. At the same time, government policy has promoted the idea that parents who provide the right sort of homelearning environment significantly influence their children's 'school readiness'.

In this context, my research revealed how mothers of children under five and early years' professionals understood the concept of 'school readiness' and how this shaped what they did. A key finding was that the way support was offered to and experienced by mothers was different depending on the places they went. As a result, children from particular families were less likely to achieve the 'school readiness' required for academic success.

Data were collected as part of a larger PhD ethnographic study that set out to explore how mothers used and experienced the resources provided by a small town in the East Midlands to support their children's literacy development. National and local statistics characterised the town as suffering from considerable economic and educational deprivation. Various settings were explored: Sure Start Children's Centres; private parent and child classes; the public library; and preschools.

The professionals working in the Children's Centres talked about how children from families (particularly those living in one of the two social housing estates) were not 'school-ready'. They painted a picture of children starting school in nappies, unable to use a knife and fork, and with a dummy. They blamed this on parents for putting children in front of the television from a very young age, giving them dummies, and not talking or reading to them.

These views shaped the way support was offered to parents who were seen to be ‘deficient’ and lacking in knowledge. They were likely to be identified by a professional such as a midwife, health visitor or social worker as 'in need of support' and then referred to the Sure Start Children's Centres where they were offered a 'pathway' of courses designed to teach them the skills and knowledge they were seen to lack.

Professionals taught them how their child's learning and development related to the different areas of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework and mothers were given a 'learning journey' to complete with photographs of their child engaging in activities related to the different areas of learning, or as evidence that they had reached a particular milestone. This was also formally tracked and kept on record, so if a child was failing to meet a particular milestone extra support could be put in place.

This practice enabled the professionals to indirectly monitor how well mothers were learning the lessons they were being taught and meant that the professionals decided what support could and should be offered. Instruction for the mothers usually took place away from the children, who were looked after in a crèche. Mothers, rather than the children, were made the focus of teaching.

However, many of the groups suffered from low attendance figures, and those who turned up often fell away before the course was finished. Professionals expressed concern that they were not always able to engage the mothers whom they felt would benefit most. But professionals from other settings and some mothers felt that by targeting and labelling families as 'vulnerable' and 'in need' of support, a stigma has now grown around the use of Children's Centres with families not wanting to be identified in this way.

Additionally, some mothers did not subscribe to the idea that they needed to be 'taught' a lesson. One mother commented that the professional who ran her group was too 'school-mistressy' and that the sessions were like being at school. It appeared that the way support was offered in the Children's Centres alienated parents and had no direct benefit to their children.

Despite the emphasis on the importance of parents in getting their children 'school-ready', the 'pathway' of courses stopped once children turned two, as it was expected that a preschool would step in at this point. Professionals in the Children's Centres frequently encouraged and reminded mothers to apply for childcare funding as they felt their children would benefit from going to preschool as early as possible. Thus an institutional approach to early education was promoted over the more informal learning that could be supported in the home and gave mothers mixed messages: On the one hand mothers were taught to take responsibility for getting their child 'school-ready'. On the other hand, it seemed their role was less important once their child was enrolled in preschool. Mothers that had attended groups at the Children's Centres commented that they saw the childcare professionals as 'experts' who knew more about how to support their child's learning, so once their child was enrolled in preschool they didn't feel they needed to do much.

In contrast, mothers who visited the public library and/or private parent and child classes were offered support very differently. Unlike in the Children's Centres, children, not mothers, were the focus. Instead of being separated from each other, they were encouraged to interact and experience what was on offer together. Activities such as singing, moving and using different props were modelled by the professionals and designed to engage the children, enhance their learning and increase their 'school readiness'. Mothers were not given specific tasks to do or asked questions to check their understanding or to find out what they did at home with their child. Monitoring their or their child's performance was of little concern.

Professionals worked on the assumption that mothers already recognised some of the benefits for their children's learning. In addition it was hoped that, through taking part and having the activities modelled to them, they would pick up ideas about how to help their child's development at home.

My research showed that the mothers in these settings did continue similar activities at home. Rather than seeing the 'experts' as solely responsible for getting their child ready for school, mothers in these settings were also more likely to continue supporting their child's learning once they were enrolled in a preschool. In this way, their children were more likely to achieve the 'school readiness' seen as necessary for educational achievement.

Practices and policies need to change to ensure all children have a positive start to school and all parents feel empowered to support their children's learning. I hope that my research will help policymakers and service providers to organise community resources more equitably so that young children can encounter a more level playing field when they start school and achieve educational success.