We must do more to close the skills gap that starts when children are very young

Kate Thick says work in Northumberland to help children must be given the funding to continue

Northumberland Church of England Academy in Ashington
Northumberland Church of England Academy in Ashington

One of the joys of having a clinic in rural Northumberland is the wonderful people who walk through the door.

A woman, short in stature but strong minded and sharp as a tack, limped in; I hooted with laughter on hearing she was called Tiger as a child. Married to a farmer, Tiger has worked for years in education in various capacities.

A Journal article reported that a quarter of children start primary school in England without the necessary language and communication skills; the North East, North West and West Midlands faring worst. Last week, the Organisation for Economic Cooperating and Development said one in five British students leave school without acquiring basic skills.

Tiger agrees with the OECD that the quality of schooling is a powerful predictor of the wealth countries will produce in the long run. She is passionate about early education and intervention which, she says, are central to giving children tools for life and for learning, tools that can transform their lives.

Skill gaps between children start in pre-school and continue throughout their educational careers but quality intervention can prevent this. The gap has narrowed slightly over the last 25 years, but there are no signs of the scale of change needed to lift the lives of the poorest in society.

Worryingly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates child poverty, currently 17%, will rise to 20% by the end of the decade.

A study by the National Association of Head Teachers revealed the extent to which schools are helping children whose families have been affected by government cuts. Schools are helping unemployed or low-income families with everything – clothes, equipment, bus passes, even haircuts - starting with food. How did we get to this in a supposed first world country?

There is good evidence of the things that do make a difference. Outside the education system: decent, affordable housing; good-quality childcare; family incomes and parental support. In schools: quality of teaching and leadership; intelligent use of good data and decisions informed by evidence based research.

Tiger told me of the excellent work in Northumberland; starting from a lower financial base than most authorities, funding for education across the board including early learning went up last year. She hopes quality provision improves for the deprived areas of the coastal strip such as Berwick, Blyth and Ashington. She said there are different problems in rural areas, particularly isolation.

In Northumberland, each child has a key worker who will put any special support needed in place, such as help with speech or social skills. Legally, every child from age two has an Early Support Development Journal which is completed during reception year in first or primary school. There is a need for very skilled staff, as well as consistency across the authority, to make sound judgments on the behalf of each child. Tiger said it is also critical that every early learning centre liaises closely with feeder primary or first schools.

The development journal assesses each child in communication and language, personal and emotional skills, physical and creative development, and knowledge of the world. Tiger says this is a good but demanding system and needs the most qualified staff in order to achieve the very best for each and every child.

Free placement and assessment starting from two years old is relatively new – the starting cohort is only two years on - and it will take years before we see results so Tiger hopes Cameron’s government will maintain and develop the initiatives, including the pupil premium, put in place by the previous coalition.

Good schools in Northumberland are full to bursting and any new housing will require schools to be built too, as well as more funds to train skilled staff to work in early years.

Is there enough focus on parenting? Children watch too much television; families do not eat, converse or read together enough. Some schools, not just in poorer areas, offer support to parents.

While child poverty and inadequate parenting are nothing new, this passing of the buck to teachers, the National Association of Head Teachers study says, is outrageous. These are problems for society as a whole surely, not just schools.

Tiger told me teachers give their all; may every child in education be so lucky as to get a Tiger in their tank.

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