Why are 25% of primary school children starting school without stringing a sentence? Here’s another take on this subject.

In terms of economic prowess, the United Kingdom may be at Champions League or Europa League level. In terms of early years communication, English Football League Championship level with 25% of primary school children. This was seen as “a persistent scandal” by Education Secretary Damien Hinds at a Resolution Foundation lecture in Westminster.

Some critics, like Damien Hinds MP, place nurture and nature at the heart of each child’s development. To some extent this may be true due to their parents’ situation. The child’s parent(s) or guardian(s) may be forced to work long hours, which reduces family time. Their family home may be temporary due to limited tenures which unsettles the child (resulting in frequent changes of schools or nurseries).

Though the 25% figure is seen as a badge of shame, it shows disregard for children with communication disorders. It assumes that each reception age child’s development can be ‘standardised’, or be the sole preserve of parental control. It neglects any external factors which have an affect on development.

External factors

Mutual support isn’t enough. Apart from having assiduous readers in my family, external factors have had a great affect in my development. I benefited from going to a playgroup in the early 1980s prior to going to nursery school. After being mute for two years (1981 – 1983), my Statement of Special Needs led to three happy years at The Ewing School (via SEN units in mainstream school). After my mute period I could string a few sentences; whether there were enough to satisfy the present Education Secretary’s targets is another issue.

There were a number of external factors which influenced my development. Buses, taxis and trains – both for my love of travel and (via Greater Manchester Transport) typography. Music: especially brass bands or the broad selection of music that Piccadilly Radio used to put out on 261 AM or 97.0 FM. Also the then brand-spanking-new Dukinfield Library and, after June 1986, the Morrisons supermarket.

I was encouraged from an early age to join the library. This instilled a love of learning for pleasure in my formative years. It seemed shiny and new. Fun. Like the Surestart centres created under Gordon Brown’s watch would have had for today’s GCSE students. Also the youth centres for today’s college students and university undergraduates.

We are cheating our toddlers by closing the Surestart Centres. By closing public libraries we are doing the same to everyone who wishes to better themselves. Somehow, our issues with early years communication skills are part of a bigger picture. Our present-day government’s defunding or underfunding of educational institutions at grassroots level.

A solution for the 25%

Had I been born in 2013 instead of the late 1970s, my prowess probably wouldn’t have been as smooth. The Ewing School closed in 2012, transferring to Cedar Mount (which is now the Cedar Mount Academy). There are feeders with other Primary Academies and SEND (Special Educational Needs Disability) provision. Far removed from The Ewing School I knew and loved though consistent with noughties trends toward SEND integration.

My time at The Ewing School has also shaped my educational opinions. Putting it bluntly, these include: small class sizes; a day away from the classroom to explore your locality (supervised by teachers of course!); and a tea party to round off the week. With all your teachers and classmates. A lot is learned in the social side, inside or outside. I could waffle on about a typical week in either the First Group or the Middle Group, but I shall save that for a future post.

In addition to the above paragraph, there was good teacher/parental support. Case Reviews would encourage children to take part in extra-curricular activities (like joining the Cub Scouts). Parents would give the child’s teacher some feedback in the next review. Influenced partly by my recollections from 1987 to 1990, we should:

  1. Consider smaller class sizes: for mainstream settings, no class size should have more than 20 pupils. At the Ewing School, I was one of 15 pupils in [the First Group] class with four teachers/speech therapists. Then one of 16 in the Middle Group with three teachers/speech therapists. In the Upper Group (18 pupils in 1989), each teacher had leanings towards one subject – allowing for easy transition to mainstream settings. The Reception Group had three teachers/speech therapists with eight pupils.
  2. Encourage pupils to go on a supervised day out at least once a week or once a month: the very thought of this today would have the Department for Education in cahoots in a Local Authority or Academy sponsor setting. Not least Health and Safety as well as OFSTED targets. In my view, being able to go on little walks in a supervised group setting allows for familiarity with different social norms. Not only behaving in public but also teamwork and other soft skills that are useful in later life. Furthermore, each excursion should be local or at least an hour’s drive from the school (using Ewing School for example, Heaton Park instead of Central Park).
  3. Work around the child’s interests: if s/he (for example) likes buses, classwork should be structured in a way around their interest. For example: maths problems referring to timetables and bus fares. In later years probability could focus on, for example, the chance of catching a First bus over a Stagecoach bus on the 346 route.
  4. Allow time for unstructured play: again, our fellows at the Department for Education may have my guts for garters with this one. In the First Group, an hour a day (except for Thursday’s trip on the minibus) was allocated to indoor play. This could take the form of playing with Lego, drawing, or playing Snakes and Ladders with the teacher.

A solution for all

Compared with my personal recollections, my ideas for addressing early years communication across the board are more prosaic. Some of which we have taken for granted before 2010 such as:

  1. Reopening all Surestart centres which have closed since the 11 May 2010.
  2. Reversing all library closures and cuts to opening hours made since the Coalition Government’s term of office.
  3. Liaison between public libraries and school libraries: at one time, liaison between school and public library provision was the norm.
  4. Increasing qualified nursery nurses in early years provision and providing suitable funding. Priority should be given to the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.
  5. The restoration of early years programming on mainstream television channels. Why can’t we show some of CBeebies’ finest programmes on BBC One or BBC Two?

Most obviously, all of the above need to be properly funded. With our present bunch, a unanimous “No Way, Pedro” seems likely.

Building bridges with sentences

In my formative years we had these wonderful folders known as Sentence Builders. Available in gatefold form, the teacher would give the pupil a selection of words on pieces of card. They were stored in slots inside the sentence building book. He or she would ‘write’ the sentence by placing the cards on a placeholder (usually green, like a badly drawn Toblerone® packet) and show it to their teacher or parent.

Today’s tablets could emulate these low-tech devices with suitable apps. Several versions are already available for Android and iOS devices.

After using sentence builders at infant school, I also used them at Ewing School. In the latter place, my first two months there before using a dictionary. This for checking my spellings having mastered the art of crafting sentences. That I read a lot – albeit non-fiction books – helped matters.

What, might you ask, could help to improve early years communication skills? A number of external factors and mutual support. Parents should be encouraged to raise their children without being chivvied by the DWP to return to work, weeks after their child’s birth. Libraries and Surestart provision should be expanded to encourage a love of learning. If there’s no villages to raise our children, what hope is there for us all, over 60s as well as under fives?

Most importantly, there should always be room for specialist provision. Some children may prosper better in an integrated setting within a mainstream school. Others might prefer a similar model to Ewing School’s approach (which helped me greatly in ways besides academic prowess).

I find the 25% figure scandalous but the buck stops with Damien Hinds’ fellow peers. Not only from their last eight years in power. Also his party’s continued defunding of public services under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and their commodification of education. All of which complicit in reducing social mobility from our formative years.

One more thing: I am not an anthropologist and none of my suggestions have been peer reviewed as yet. Personal experience is behind my opinions in this piece. As usual, feel free to comment. Thank you.

S.V., 01 August 2018.



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