Coherent education policy for Croydon, or moving the chairs on the Titanic?

By - Thursday 3rd December, 2015

Problems in Croydon’s schools are well-established by the end of the primary years. What can be done? asks education consultant Charlotte Davies

Image author’s own.

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once famously said: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” The structure of educational institutions does not matter so long as the children are educated.

If we look around the world at outstanding examples of educational excellence we can see highly successful education systems operating with both selective and non-selective systems; we only have to compare Finland with Singapore. We are neither of those countries; the UK has a long heritage of educational failure for the masses, and we need to root out why. This is an urgent task, not least because we are now a knowledge-based economy requiring highly skilled workers, meaning those who are not highly skilled are trapped in low pay. The quality of everyone’s lives is impoverished by having an underclass that is excluded economically and socially.

British teachers are the youngest in the developed world

A key element of improvement is to minimise change. Change is very costly and makes it difficult to assess the impact of any one factor because there is no long-term data to study. Furthermore, highly successful education systems plan long term and they change slowly. These plans are supported by popular consensus even before they are passed. This makes sense for a wide variety of reasons:

  •  The primary educational stage of human development is categorised as the first twenty-five years of life; it is a long slow process.
  • Teachers need time to develop resources and skills to meet the needs of the curriculum. It takes about five years for any professional to become skilled at their profession. The UK has, demographically, the youngest teachers of any country in the developed world, according to the OECD (2013)
  • Schools have a long, slow trade cycle. A primary school recruits four-year-olds and these children go through the primary education process over seven years. Secondary education is another seven years – and is highly dependent on the quality of education the youngsters have already received when they come in aged just eleven
  • Constant change is very wasteful: resources are purchased and created and discarded in rapid succession; teachers burn out

Problems in Croydon are well established by the end of primary education. Croydon Key Stage 2 results are some of the lowest in England, with 8% of pupils failing to achieve Level 4 by the end of their primary years, and only 21% achieving Level 5 or above. Luton is the lowest borough in England, where 8% of its pupils do not reach Level 4 by the end of their primary years and 18% reach Level 5 or above – so Croydon is not far off the bottom. By comparison, in the London borough of Sutton, 3% of pupils did not achieve Level 4 by the end of their primary years, and 31% achieved Level 5 or above.

UK children start compulsory education very young by international standards

Therefore, shuffling around the structure of secondary schools is probably not going to address the real underlying problems. We need to look at what happens to our children before they enter secondary education if we want to make fundamental changes.

The starting age of compulsory education in most developed countries, according to the OECD, is six years of age. The UK and the USA stand out as being very young at four years; Sweden, Finland, Estonia are seven years. In nearly all OECD countries over 90% of children engage in some kind of pre-school activity based on play.

According to UNESCO (2010), ‘early childhood is defined as the period from birth to eight years old. A time of remarkable brain growth, these years lay the foundation for subsequent learning and development.’

International research in child development also broadly supports the importance of the developmental years up to the UK’s Year 3 when children are seven to eight years old. A. Jean Ayres and Jeff Robbins found that “sensory integration that occurs in moving, talking and playing is the groundwork for the more complex sensory integration that is necessary for reading, writing, and good behaviour. If sensorimotor processes are well organised in the first seven years of life, the child will have an easier time learning mental and social skills later on”.

There is also a growing appreciation that life is very difficult for young learners if they have not been able to establish good control of themselves before they start formal schooling: “Unorganized sensory input creates a traffic jam in our brain making it difficult to pay attention and learn.” (Nicholls and Syvertson. John Hopkins University, 2015).

Children up to eight years old should learn through play

A recent piece of research by Dee and Sievertsen (2015) highlights the critical importance of not starting formal education too early, stating that “in Denmark, children typically enrol in school during the calendar year in which they turn six. We find that a one-year delay in the start of school dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity at age seven. This large and targeted effect persists at age eleven”.

Therefore, I would argue that one factor that is significant in creating educational problems in the UK is starting formal education far too young. Children up to eight years of age should be learning predominantly through play, because they have to be given time to master control of their own sensory integration. That needs to be the focus of any early-years programme. Get that right and numeracy and literacy will follow easily. Get it wrong and the child struggles for years.

In Croydon that problem is further magnified by the number of families living in cramped accommodation with little access to spaces the children can play in without constant parental supervision. If our children are not outside moving and playing for long hours each day, they are simply not developing properly.

In 2010, Sir Liam Donaldson called for the introduction of fitness testing for all children in UK schools. Dr Gavin Sandercock of Essex University renewed that call in 2011 and again in 2015, because UK school children are becoming so unfit compared to past generations and other nations (G.R.H. Sandercock, A. Ogunleye and C. Voss, 2015).

In South London we are home to the Froebel Trust, which was set up in 1892 as the Froebel Educational Institute, to promote the importance of early years education up to eight years of age. We need to revisit its philosophies and practices in order to rediscover that children, like all mammals, need time and space to develop properly.

Charlotte Davies

Charlotte Davies

I am an Educational Consultant, Director of Fit 2 Learn CIC, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. My teaching experience has covered Economics and Business Education including Enterprise; I have worked as a senior teacher. I now work to identify the root causes of educational under-achievement.

More Posts

  • Anne Giles

    You are so right. I did not start school till I was 6. Children younger than that should be learning through play.

  • Sean Creighton

    An important contribution to the debate. There at least three other factors that need to be taken into account.

    Firstly, the latest research that is showing that teenage brain development requires the school day to start later than at present otherwise the learning process is hampered.

    Secondly, the stress and air pollution effects on pupils and its interaction with the development of the increasing number who travel a long way to and from school, mainly in the secondary sector but increasingly in the primary sector.

    Thirdly, the league table results in Croydon schools do not tell us about Croydon resident pupils only about the pupils are both resident and those who come into the Borough from elsewhere. Better league table results in surrounding Boroughs will include many Croydon pupils. I understand that the requirement to record where pupils live was done away with some time ago. So we have no statistics on which the make an assessment..

  • Charlotte Davies

    Sean is correct in citing other issues that affect school performance; but I would suggest that they are secondary to formal school starting age.
    * Sleep is a significant issue amongst all age groups in the UK and schools are struggling to cope with children who are turning up everyday sleep deprived. For some children this is an issue of living in noisy sub-standard accommodation; but for many others it is down to the impact of being exposed to blue light from screens and erratic home lives that make regular and sufficient sleep hard to access.
    * Many of the students that I see who are sleep deprived also suffer from irregular and poor nutrition. They do not seem to have had breakfast and often also dinner the previous night, but they are tanked up on sugary caffeine drinks.
    * Air pollution does also restrict cognitive development for any child growing up in an area with high pollution levels. Data for London does not make good reading on this front.
    * Stress I would suggest is a huge subject which is affected by a vast range of factors, such as: families on low incomes; insecure accommodation; erratic home lives; anxious people around the child – children’s heart beats will synchronise with the most dominant person around them; not coping at school academically or socially; family crises such as deaths and changes in key relationships in the family.
    We need a really good understanding of what every child needs to thrive to access equality of opportunity in life, if we really want an effective education system. Drowning in debates about grammar schools will affect nothing.
    The data for school performance is just a rough measure. What is important is that all those children in the bottom where ever they live can access equality of opportunity; otherwise we are going to be supporting them for the rest of their lives, some of them in prisons and mental health units others through subsidies to low wages. No-one wants to live with the indignity of being a dependent.

    • Anne Giles

      I am quite appalled when I see children having to leave for school as early as they do. They must be exhausted.