Improving school readiness

School readiness remains high on the political agenda amid reports of increasing numbers of children starting reception in nappies and lacking basic speech and language skills. But what does school readiness really mean and how can early years providers help to prepare children as they approach school age? Elizabeth Walker explains.


The term “school readiness” is widely used but there is no nationally agreed definition. The term is therefore open to interpretation and the subject prompts intense debate from policy makers, educationalists and childcare practitioners alike.

Unicef’s interpretation highlights the importance of collaborative working between childcare professionals, teachers and parents. Early years providers therefore play a key role in preparing children for the next stage in their education and must work closely with families and schools to ensure a smooth transition for children at this important time in their lives.

Indicators of school readiness

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) states that it promotes teaching and learning to ensure children’s “school readiness” and gives children the broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life.

Although there is no common agreement on the definition of school readiness, it is widely accepted that it refers not just to a child’s cognitive and academic skills but involves physical, social and emotional development as well.

The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) published a 2013 research report into what school readiness means for childcare professionals, parents and primary school teachers. What Does “School Ready” Really Mean? shows that the majority of each group agree that children who are school ready:

  • have strong social skills

  • can cope emotionally with being separated from their parents

  • are relatively independent in their own personal care

  • have a curiosity about the world and a desire to learn.

For a child to be considered school ready, respondents stated that cognitive and academic skills such as reading and writing are not as important as children being confident, independent and curious.

Working together

Starting school is a time of transition and it requires co-operation between childcare professionals, teachers and parents. Unicef describes school readiness as consisting of three pillars:

  • children’s readiness for school

  • schools’ readiness for children

  • families’ readiness for school.

By working together the three pillars maximise each child’s likelihood of success as they progress through their time in school. Therefore, school readiness refers not only to the attributes of a child but also to the roles and responsibilities of families, teachers and practitioners in ensuring that children are ready and able to access learning as they enter school and beyond.

Early years practitioners are vital at this time of transition and must seek to collaborate and communicate effectively with parents and schools to help to prepare children for school.

Early years providers

Research suggests that early years education makes a positive difference to children’s school readiness and to outcomes in later life. Early years practitioners should develop effective practice to ensure that they are providing the relevant support to children and their families when they are approaching school age. Good practice includes the following points.

  • Establish positive relationships and communicate with parents about the transition to school.

  • Share ideas with parents about how to support children’s development and learning at home.

  • Track individual children’s progress and share information with schools and all relevant partners.

  • Share good practice and reinforce positive relationships with schools to identify the common expectations they share in the EYFS.

  • Ensure staff understand the different stages of child development, how these relate to each other and how to plan appropriate resources and activities.

  • Demonstrate high expectations for each child by providing challenge, promoting resilience and raising aspirations.

  • Recognise, record and respond to the different ways that children learn and reflect this in provision and practice.

  • Respect and respond to children’s backgrounds and circumstances.

  • Encourage children to develop independence at meal and snack times.

  • Encourage children to develop independence in self-care including getting dressed and using the toilet.

  • Encourage children to play co-operatively together and learn to take turns.

  • Review practice and identify gaps in staff training.

Ready schools

When children start at primary school they arrive at different levels of learning and development and can have up to a year’s difference in age. In order for children to settle quickly and make good progress, teachers need to assess children’s starting points and provide resources and activities that are suited to their needs, interests and abilities.

Early years providers should share all relevant information regarding children’s learning and development prior to starting school so that teachers can plan accordingly for their needs.

It is important for practitioners to identify when children are experiencing learning and developmental delays as early as possible and whether any additional support is required. Children might require specific programmes of support or appropriate intervention as soon as they start in reception so it is vital that early years providers work closely with the next school and with other relevant agencies to ensure a smooth transition.

Ready families

Working in partnership with parents is central to the EYFS and it is important that early years providers and teachers recognise that parents are children’s first and most enduring educators. Engaging families in their children’s learning and development has a significant impact on children’s progress and wellbeing as well as outcomes in later life.

It is therefore important that families are fully supported in the transition to school and offered clear and accessible information on how to help prepare their children for the next stage in their learning. This could include information on:

  • learning through play at home and outdoors

  • developing speech and language skills through singing songs, nursery rhymes and talking together

  • supporting children’s independence and self-care skills at home, including getting dressed, eating meals, and using the toilet

  • offering opportunities to play with other children and experience socialising, sharing and taking turns

  • recognising and talking through children’s feelings and emotions about starting school

  • reading with and to children every day if possible

  • offering opportunities for mark-making, painting and colouring

  • promoting an active and healthy lifestyle

  • establishing a good sleep routine

  • helping children to get to know their new school and teacher before starting

  • seeking professional support and advice if appropriate.