05/11/2013 by RFB
The start – important to get right
“The start of primary school has been perceived as one of the most important transitions in a child’s life and a major challenge of early childhood. Initial success at school, both socially and intellectually, leads to a virtuous cycle of achievement (Burrell and Bubb 2000) and can be critical factor in determining children’s adjustment to the demands of the school environment and future progress (Ghaye and Pascal 1989). A range of authors (Fabian and Dunlop 2002a; Dunlop and Fabian 2003) propose that the way in which transitions are experienced not only makes a difference to children in the early months of a new situation, but may also have much longer-term impact, because the extent to which they feel successful in the first transition is likely to influence subsequent experiences. While the age of starting school varies (For example, in New Zealand children start school on their fifth birthday, but in Finland they do not start school until they are 7), studies from countries in Europe, from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and the USA… identify that, no matter how different the systems of institutional education, school entry has turned out to be a significant developmental step for children and their families.”
– Outcomes of good practice in transition process for children entering primary school, by Hilary Fabian and Aline-Wendy Dunlop, May 2007, p1.
Despite research emphasising the importance of a child’s positive start to school, there is no consistent, evidence-based, mandatory policy for how school start should be best handled, and each primary school determines their own approach. As a result, there is very broad variation in what schools offer in regards to induction into Reception. The more child-centric approaches may include home visits prior to the start of term to familiarise the child and family with the Reception teacher, taster sessions at the school during the summer term preceding the school start, parents accompanying children for a period of time at the start of the day, mornings/afternoon only sessions either initially or for longer periods of time, and staggered starts. At the other end of the spectrum can be found rigid policies of full day starts for all children on the first day of term, with restricted parental access. Increasingly it is this approach that is becoming the most common solution to the start of school. This may be attributed to schools seeking to meet the needs of working parents, who are not easily available to support a more gradual entry, and also to providing a continuation of provision for children who are already in full time childcare prior to their entry to Reception. It may also better suit the needs of the school, for their own practical and administrative reasons. It does not however reflect an interest in meeting the needs of children.
How Reception induction is managed depends largely on the attitude and preference of the Head Teacher and the Reception Teacher. It is possible for children to be very well supported in their acclimatisation to primary school. In the following extract, a Reception Teacher from a state primary school in North London shares their perspective on school induction:
“Best practice is to start the transition in the summer term, but strategies will vary from school to school as you can really do as much or as little as you like. For children from our Nursery into our Reception we try to have free flow between the two classrooms, both indoor and outdoor. This is clearly dependent on staff working well together.
In July we invite children who don’t go to our Nursery for a drop-in session (either with parent or a key worker from their nursery). Some settings even go and visit children in their nurseries. Then in September I do a home visit so children have a familiar face when they arrive for their first day. We also find out what they like and try to plan relevant activities for their first day. We do a staggered intake, with a maximum of 10 children at a time, for mornings only, although I often face a lot of pressure from both parents and the school’s senior management team to get all children in full time as quickly as possible. We have the first 10 children stay for lunch and then for the full day until eventually all the children are in.
Dates for staggered intake are flexible, so if a child is not ready we can delay staying for lunch, although I don’t feel we could do that for long because of the pressure from management. We would definitely have to have all the children who turn five in September in as soon as possible because of attendance data*. This year we chose to have the children who did not attend our Nursery first because they were the least familiar with our setting. I had three or four children this year that found starting trickier than the others. For these children we try to meet with parents early on to see how we can help. We have suggested play dates with classmates to help with making friendships. We have also allowed parents to stay if their child is distressed. In some instances the anxiety of the parent can impact on child’s experience though, and for some children a clean break from parent can be beneficial as it enables them to relax into the morning. This however would not be attempted on their first morning and only after we have talked it through with parent.”
*The school’s senior management team has to report attendance data to the borough. If it is not at a certain level this can provoke an inspection. A school also cannot receive a Good rating from OFSTED if their attendance does not meet a certain level.
Schools know best? What about temperament?
The above example seems to be the exception to the rule. It is more common to hear of abrupt full day starts from the first day of term, where children who find warming to new settings and people challenging are left at school distressed, and poorly supported by the adults in the setting. Parents are known to be prevented from remaining with their child until they feel comfortable, often being told “We know best” by the school.
The New York Longitudinal Study by psychologists Thomas, Chess, Birch and Hertzig identified three different categorisations of temperaments that could be applied to approximately 65% of children (the remaining 35% were seen to display a mix of the categories). These were titled ‘Easy’ (easily adapt to new situations, generally positive mood), ‘Difficult’ (more emotional and irritable, more prone to crying and with a tendency to irregular eating and sleeping patterns) and ‘Slow-to-warm-up’ (cautious of new situations and people, slow to adapt to new experiences but may accept once they are familiarised and have developed a trust for the setting and caregivers). Each category was recognised as having its own strengths and weaknesses: one not being better than another. Of the 65% of children who could be categorised in this way, 40% fell into the ‘Easy’ group, 10% the ‘Difficult’ and 15% the ‘Slow-to-warm-up’.
Bearing these descriptions of temperament in mind, it seems obvious that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect all children to immediately adapt to the experience of starting school in the same way. Certainly a school adopting the attitude that “we know best” regarding an appropriate induction system can only be true if that school is proactive in showing flexibility in their induction policy, and being inclusive of the varying needs that children present in regards to becoming comfortable with a new setting. An abrupt start may be acceptable to the 40% of ‘Easy’ children, however it may be sorely lacking and unsupportive of the remaining children and families.
Option to defer entry or go part-time
One option that parents are not always made fully aware of is the opportunity to defer a child’s school place until the term after they turn 5 (compulsory school age). While it is recommended that this be done in consultation with the Reception Teacher and Head Teacher, it is ultimately the right of the parent to opt to defer or to make a part-time arrangement, if they believe it to be in the best interest of their child. From the Department for Education’s School Admissions Code 2012:
“2.16 Admission of children below compulsory school age and deferred entry to school – Admission authorities must provide for the admission of all children in the September following their fourth birthday. The authority must make it clear in their arrangements that:
a) parents can request that the date their child is admitted to school is deferred until later in the academic year or until the term in which the child reaches compulsory school age, and
b) parents can request that their child takes up the place part-time until the child reaches compulsory school age. “
Parents should however be prepared with the knowledge that they may meet resistance from a school if they seek to deviate from the norm, although it is unlikely that this resistance is connected to what the school believes to be in the best interests of the child. Resistance should not deter a parent from pushing for the support that their child needs.
Rights of the child
It is unethical and immoral to discount the needs of children when determining policy regarding school start. It is possible for schools to take a flexible and needs based approach, as has been shown by best practice example given above. Furthermore, the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 190 countries in the world, including the UK, contains the following articles that pertain to this situation, and defend the child’s rights to have their needs prioritised in the process:
Article 3 (Best interests of the child): The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to budget, policy and lawmakers.
Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child): When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.
Article 28: (Right to education): All children have the right to a primary education, which should be free. Wealthy countries should help poorer countries achieve this right. Discipline in schools should respect children’s dignity. Any form of school discipline should take into account the child’s human dignity. Therefore, governments must ensure that school administrators review their discipline policies and eliminate any discipline practices involving physical or mental violence, abuse or neglect.
Parents share their experiences
Below are two examples of what can occur when schools ignore a child’s needs during their transition into Reception:
“My son is 5, born late July. This made him due to start in Reception last year, when he was just over 4. Nobody mentioned that I could keep him out until age 5, I was told it was compulsory that he started. He was, it seemed, very excited about starting school, even on the day he beamed when he got into his uniform and all the way to school. There was no introduction to the school for the kids, only the parents were invited to the school prior to admission day. We arrived and were directed to classrooms. We were made aware that parents would be able to stay for ten minutes, help the kids find their coat pegs etc. and that there would then be a bell, and all parents were to leave. At that point my little one started to panic. No amount of reassurance from me or his father comforted him. Then the bell rang at which point he clung to me for life. He was told by staff that I had to leave and he was physically pulled and dragged off me. He collapsed screaming and I was ordered out of the room. He screamed and screamed but I was then escorted out of the building. I was so distressed by this point that I didn’t know what to do. We could still hear him screaming and I just couldn’t go. My partner was able to look into the classroom window and he saw that our son was hysterical on the floor all alone with the staff all doing other things. At this point a staff member came out and told us that we had to leave. She was rude and her tone was demeaning, she said that we were making it worse for him and that we must leave that they would ring me once he had calmed down. You may be wondering to yourself, how did I let this go on? I ask myself that all the time. I was so tied up that day as I really didn’t want my only just 4 year old to be starting school at all, plus I hadn’t wanted him to go to that particular school, I felt powerless and lost. I did leave, against my better judgment, because I was bullied into it by the school. I can honestly say that nothing had prepared me for the way that I was spoken to by school staff and nothing since has helped me accept the way they continue to speak to and treat parents. When they did call us, I wasn’t convinced about the story they told me and I couldn’t get there fast enough to collect him. The situation the next day was the same. I was ordered by the class teacher to leave, I made special requests for this to be dealt with differently and I was told no, we won’t make exceptions they were all treated the same and that he would adjust if I did, that it was my fault that he was struggling to settle. Eventually after days of this he would go in and I will never know if he has just been broken into submission. One year on he enjoys school but seems scared to challenge it in anyway and is prone to being picked on by other boys. I can’t believe I made him go through this in such a traumatic way, that I didn’t fight them more at the beginning, but I really didn’t feel like I could. I am sharing this with you as I would like to help this process be easier for other children and their parents.”
“At my child’s school you have to leave the children at the gate to go in on their own (from the 2nd day) and they start with going full time every day from the beginning. The head mistress was adamant this is the best way. I was skeptical but I could see that there were issues with some other methods at other schools and thought I’d see how it went. I have concluded that this isn’t a great method – at least for my child as going in to school on his own is very difficult for him. We have to find a friend for him to go in with and are lucky we know people with older kids at the school who take him in with them. Full days from the beginning I also feel has been quite hard on him. There’s a lot to get used to and doing this at the same time as feeling tired out by the whole thing is too much for them in my opinion. There is also no flexibility once the child gets upset the only strategy is to pick them up and carry them in crying.”
If you are concerned about your child’s start at school, these suggestions may be useful:
1) Visit as many prospective schools as possible, and make a point of asking the Head Teacher and often more importantly the Reception Teacher what the school’s induction system is. Ask what flexibility is supported by the school and share your concerns about the school start, and what your child’s needs are. Be aware that you know the needs of your child best.
2) Feel empowered to ask for what your child needs, be that a home visit, mornings only, or even you accompanying them for a period of time.
3) If you do not feel that your child is ready to start in the September that they are due, consult with the school about deferring or attending part-time until they reach compulsory school age. Your child is still eligible to receive their 15 hours early years funding until they are five. Hopefully the school will be understanding and supportive of your preference to defer, however know that it is ultimately your decision. The school must hold the place for your child. If you still feel it is too soon once they reach compulsory school age, there is also the option of home schooling.
4) Remember: you are the advocate for your child. Although at times school environments may feel intimidating, you are well within your rights to act in your child’s defence and best interests, even if that means taking them home and reconsidering the situation.
These links may be useful:
Outcomes of good practice in transition processes for children entering primary school by Hilary Fabian, Aline-Wendy Dunlop 2006
Department for Education: School Admissions Code 2012
An example of a county council’s policy on deferring entry to primary school, September 2013 (Devon)
Summary of the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child