School readiness is vitally important


As the Princess of Wales pointed out in her keynote address during the ‘Shaping Us’ national symposium in November 2023, children learn at a faster rate during the period from their birth to the age of five than at any other time in their lives. This is why it is vital that they constantly receive high quality early education in these critically formative years, giving them plenty of opportunities to establish a strong bedrock of key capabilities that will fundamentally shape the adults they become.

(For the presentation, see Princess of Wales keynote speech at November 2023 Shaping Us national symposium.)

Consider THE CROW!

The crow is a large, smart, robust, adaptable, generally black bird. It is known to roost in thousands – a group of which is a murder of crows!

They are intelligent, have a loud, hard “craw”, express emotions and as problem solvers, they can use tools to get food, enjoying an omnivorous diet.

‘THE CROW’ can help us remember to focus on seven vitally important competencies that need to be prioritised and systematically nurtured from the start of life so that individuals can thrive, capitalise on learning opportunities and maximise their potential.

Key elements of education provision for children aged 3 to 5

Nursery and Reception children benefit enormously from timetabled sessions with a constant flow of experiential, age-appropriate tasks with trusted adults in safe, supportive environments. This enables them to gradually build confidence, look after their physical and mental health, enjoy life-enriching relationships, practise drawing on inner qualities conducive to generating resilience to life’s challenges and be stimulated by a growth mindset. Armed with the resulting toolkit, these young citizens can flourish and each day becomes an adventure as their world expands.



We need to learn to ‘use our brains’ and think.



Our wellbeing depends on caring about our health.



Self-regulation and managing emotions are essential.



Communicating clearly with others creates connection.



Relationships are central to the quality of our lives.



Knowing ourselves helps us understand others.



The world is a treasure chest of things to explore.

Investing in the wellbeing and prospects of young children – everyone’s future

Lockdowns and restricted social interactions during the coronavirus crisis had disastrous consequences for many children now aged three to five. Their under-developed communication, language, social and emotional skills are blighting their capacity to learn and presenting some challenges to staff outside their training and prior experience. Valuable teaching time is also being taken up addressing personal and hygiene issues.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. It conducts research into gaps in education provision and focuses on school priorities. In 2022 it reported that in 2021 only 59% of children were reaching the expected levels of development in all core areas of learning by the end of their first year of formal schooling (Reception year) compared with 72% in 2019.

The far reaching effects of early years education are now being recognised. It is also apparent from studies that there is a consistently higher prevalence of Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) needs among learners growing up in less well off areas. While post-pandemic ramping up of wellbeing and skills for children aged three to five is essential and will be advantageous for all of them, those from socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods are likely to benefit the most, resulting in more equitable outcomes across families and communities.

Research has shown that: by the age of five, the attainment levels of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are, on average, four months behind their better off peers and such gaps can double by the end of primary schooling.

Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) in Early Years

Good, systematic PSED supports Nursery and Reception children’s progress because of how it incrementally nurtures the skills of:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation, and
  • Building relationships.

The process helps this cohort have a positive sense of themselves, gain essential social skills, respect others, feel emotionally strong, draw on a bank of techniques for self-regulation and enjoy a positive attitude towards learning. These are not only important markers for school readiness but also important skills for the long term, enabling individuals to maximise their potential and thrive throughout life.

However, this development relies heavily on parents, carers and early years practitioners. They need to be modelling appropriate behaviour and providing positive feedback. It is essential therefore that the capabilities, opportunities and motivation for these early years influencers and staff are actively developed.

Early Years Stronger Practice Hubs

In 2023, as part of the early years education recovery support package, the Department for Education (DfE) established a network of 18 Stronger Practice Hubs, two in each of the nine government regions of England. Via local networks, they provide advice, share good practice and offer evidence-based professional development for early year practitioners.

Advancing early years training and professional development

As ever, a key determinant of the quality of early years provision is the experience, knowledge, professionalism, skill and wellbeing of the practitioners. Their training and professional development, as well as taking care of themselves in what can be stressful, demanding situations, are therefore crucial.

In 2022, when the EEF was inviting applications for funding the creation of innovative, early years educational programmes to generate evidence and develop practice, these were their 10 criteria.

CONTENT that promotes PSED, including self-regulation

Programmes that:

  1. develop staff’s skills for teaching, modelling and encouraging prosocial behaviour
  2. support staff to implement open-ended activities that prompt children to collaborate, solve problems, share and take turns
  3. provide children with opportunities to develop and apply a repertoire of behaviours and support them to apply these in response to challenging situations
  4. encourage children to do things for themselves, set goals, persevere, and make responsible decisions
  5. support staff to implement approaches that instil children’s self-awareness, such as recognising or reflecting on their emotions, thoughts and strengths
  6. encourage staff to also share approaches that are consistently applied in the setting with parents and carers

PROCESSES that support staff to implement PSED approaches, including self-regulation

Programmes that:

  1. support staff with both short blocks of dedicated teaching time for PSED as well as teachable moments in ‘real life’ situations
  2. support staff with both universal and tailored/targeted approaches, that can be applied in response to children’s varying level of development
  3. support approaches to be ingrained in the culture of the setting, supporting all adults to support children’s active application of their knowledge consistently e.g., from lunchtime staff to the key person
  4. incorporate training for staff so they can ‘go beyond’ learning materials provided by the programme, developing an improved sense of self-efficacy to implement effective PSED approaches.

Driving improvement and promoting best practice

For practitioners to be rightly proud of what is being achieved in early years settings – and to have something to crow about – the intentions need to feature in improvement plans.

As can be seen from the EEF’s expectations, the desired outcomes require significant knowledge and skills progression from early years staff. Evidence-informed practices must be embedded both in the culture and environment as well as in teaching techniques. Those in management positions need to ensure a high quality curriculum and engagement of parents and carers to progressively and effectively deliver age-appropriate, early years goals that set children up for life.

On April 2, 2024