Primary school offers day is a significant moment for families and their children as they embark on a journey that will help steer future pathways. Schools play an essential role in providing opportunities and experiences that will help pupils realize their potential, widen their aspirations and thrive.
The impact of the past two years has further exacerbated the challenges that primary schools were already facing. Children have had very different educational and social experiences during the pandemic. These factors include differing access to resources, devices and the internet; the extent to which parents were able to support their learning; and the environments children lived and studied in. Despite best efforts, some children, particularly those from disadvantaged areas, fundamentally had a much less robust lockdown education than others.
This impact has been substantial; some of the biggest gaps we have seen are in phonics, maths and writing – including simple acts such as holding a pencil and letter formation. The same can be said for fitness, with pandemic restrictions having a tangible effect on children’s physical development.
Recent funding increases are welcome, but current levels aren’t sufficient to address the acute problems we face. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, stated that: “The evidence is compelling that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most important.”
Yet many of these children will have only interacted with a small group of people over the last few years – and in some cases, with just one adult – so upon joining primary school will have far less social interaction and slower speech and language development than expected .
Research from education charity, Teach First, also found 71 per cent of primary school teachers believe pupils entering reception are less ready for school than in previous years, meaning that teachers are having to spend more time developing basic skills and behaviours.
A key way to address these issues would be by raising the early years pupil premium rate to be in line with the current primary school levels – something Teach First called for earlier this year. Then, we can target support for the youngest children, aid speech development, increase opportunities for disadvantaged children and make a genuine difference. Without this, we risk hindering life opportunities. An EIF report found children with poor vocabulary skills at age five are more likely to have reading difficulties as an adult, more likely to have mental health problems and more likely to be unemployed.
While most families are doing everything they can to support their children’s education, there will be many without devices, financial aid, or the capacity to support their children at home. Restoring the pupil premium to 2015-16 levels and guaranteeing the rate over three years will allow schools to implement long-term plans to tackle these inequalities and provide the best possible experience for every pupil.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
Many schools at Orwell MAT use pupil premium funding to provide more refined support for pupils who qualify, including employing private speech and language support workers to extend NHS provision, and training for support staff to continue speech and language development in between these visits. This can make a huge difference to a child’s future.
Our job as educators is to teach children, yet the current situation means many teachers are extending their expertise and devoting increasing amounts of time and energy to non-academic issues. An uplift in local government funding for early intervention services for young people would mean teachers can focus on teaching, and wraparound support can be provided by expert organisations.
In a system that was already stretched, we should not underestimate the challenges we will face in coming years. Parents, teachers and school leaders are rightly concerned about ensuring our young people do not miss out on a high-quality education. There is no quick fix, and it will require us to focus on the most impactful and long-term solutions. With the right intentions, adequate funding and resources, we can provide the best possible opportunities for every child.
Anna Hennell James is CEO of the Orwell Multi Academy Trust and co-chair of the Teach First National Schools Forum