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A growing interest in early childhood’s contribution to school readiness

Needham, Martin and Ülküer, Nurper (2020) A growing interest in early childhood’s contribution to school readiness. International Journal of Early Years Education, 28 (3). pp. 209-217. ISSN 0966-9760

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Abstract

James Coleman’s report on equality and education published in the mid-1960s (Coleman 1966) made a blunt statement that children, especially the ‘non-white children’ in the USA were not enjoying equal opportunities in education, as they were not coming to school ‘ready’. Reading the report now, the race and class bias in system is very apparent; it sought to compensate for the perceived social-cultural-economic characteristics of the home and family environment that was emphasised as playing a decisive role in children’s school achievement. The report concluded that in order for children to succeed in school, they needed to be prepared through preschool programmes, such as Head Start. The longitudinal success of Head Start in the USA reported by Weikart in the 1990s presented findings about the long-term situation for children who had participated in early education programmes (Gilford 2013). It showed improved school outcomes, improved career prospects, reduced social and health interventions in later life. This inspired many nations to invest more into early interventions and early childhood education, acquired a role, to ‘prepare’ children for school in order to help them succeed. With greater investment has come increased scrutiny, control and revised expectations of quality in early education. SureStart initiated in the UK in the late 1990s was an example of such political and pedagogical response towards achieving equality of education through early childhood education (Needham and Anning 2017). The longitudinal research legacy of both of these programmes emphasised the importance of the home learning environment together with access to a preschool pedagogy that balances both adult-lead and child-lead, play-based learning (Schweinhart 2013; Sylva et al. 2010). Nevertheless, the neoliberal political legacies in the USA, UK and elsewhere often prefer to extend more school-like experiences to children aged five and under (Sahlberg 2015; Moss and Urban 2020). Encouraged by research, many nations have committed to the idea that children who attend Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) are more likely to be successful when they start school than those who do not (OECD 2012, 2017). Children’s readiness for school is frequently cited among governments’ motives for this investment in the early years sector. ‘How children are prepared for school?’ continues to be a keenly debated political question in international forums where early child development seems to be increasingly perceived as a preparation for primary school (United Nations 2015). The Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and Goal 4.2 in particular (United Nations 2015) establish Early Childhood Education (ECE) as a global target in order ‘to prepare’ children for school and to ensure that they are ready as well as able to ‘learn’, calling for at least one year of preschool education to be compulsory for all children in all member states. UNICEF (2019) advocates the impact of quality pre-primary education on completion rates and more successful progress in literacy and mathematical. skills in subsequent primary schooling. Governmental motives for this extension of provision are often linked to the belief that young children starting in education earlier will give nations a competitive edge in the global market place (OECD 2017), but is starting ‘schooling’ earlier necessarily better? Or do we need to start re-thinking concepts and processes of ‘schooling and school readiness’ differently?

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