Half of pupils are not ready to start primary school, say teachers

School staff report that the pandemic has led children to miss out on developmental and social milestones.

10 March 2022

A rising number of pupils lack the basic skills they need to start school, according to a new report.

In an online survey of nearly 1,000 primary school teachers carried out during November and December 2021 by YouGov and the early years charity Kindred2, half of Reception pupils were not ready to start school.

Schools expect early years pupils to have basic social skills such as being able to share, to write some letters and numbers, to follow simple instructions and to be able to concentrate for short periods of time.

But in the study, one in four teachers said that over half of children starting Reception could not follow instructions and struggled to share with others.

On average, the survey found that just 50% of pupils arrived in Reception being “school ready” while over a third of teachers – 34% – said that their pupils were not ready to start school, an increase on the proportion who reported this in 2020 of 23%.

Teachers said that the pandemic had impacted pupils’ readiness for school, with parents finding it difficult to access toddler groups. Lockdowns have meant that young children have had fewer opportunities to develop social skills or enjoy experiences such as a visit to a farm or zoo.

A teacher in the East Midlands said: “We have an expectation that children come to school toilet trained, but we are seeing more and more pupils each year who are not.”

Another teacher in the West Midlands added: “They [parents] assume we will teach them to read, we will teach them to toilet if they aren’t already, we will teach them their numbers, how to eat, their manners.”

Teachers added that there was limited support for parents, with one commenting that “Sure Start was great as it was very inclusive”.

Pupils’ nursery attendance has also been impacted. A deputy head in Scotland said that there seemed to be less language development for their pupils because they were “Covid babies” who had been “stuck at home”.

Nearly 9 in 10 – 88% – of primary school teachers and teaching assistants reported that pupils’ lack of school readiness meant they needed more individual attention, which reduced time for other pupils in the class.

Robert Halfon MP, chairman of the Education Select Committee said: “Lockdown and schools closures have not just had a dramatic effect on school children in terms of the education, mental health, safeguarding risks and life chances, but also for younger children who haven’t even started school yet.”

Ofsted have recently reported that some of the hardest hit children had “forgotten how to eat with a knife and fork, or lost their early years progress in numbers and words”, he added.

“Prioritisation must be given to early years support and there needs to be a catch-up programme specifically designed to support families and nurseries to teach children practical and social learning, as well as better support their educational development,” he said.

“We should also provide better parental engagement and look at the examples of schools across the country who are working with parents to become mentors to other parents in the area.”

Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza  said: “We know the vital importance of a child’s early years. It’s always crucial to hear from the professionals working with very young children. They are clearly highlighting the effect on pre-school children the pandemic is having, as well as on those who did not have access to the classroom during it.”

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union the NAHT said “It is no surprise that the pandemic has had a major impact on some children.”

“We know that repeated lockdowns have meant that most younger children have had reduced social interaction and it is perhaps unsurprising that this has affected their emotional development, social, and speech and language skills.

“Schools will work incredibly hard to give pupils the extra support they need but they cannot do this alone and we would also urge the government to invest in vital services including speech and language therapy, and early years services for disadvantaged families, so that those children who need specialist support receive it as early as possible.”

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