How well aligned are our ECE and school sectors? JUDE BARBACK looks closely at a child’s transition from early childhood education to school in New Zealand.

One of the most common challenges faced by a new entrant teacher is when a child joins his or her Year 0 class and is not ‘school ready’. Any efforts to push on with the reading, writing, ‘rithmetic journey are hindered by the fact that this child has not been adequately prepared for the realities of school life.

Essentially, school readiness means that children should be able to manage themselves appropriately in the school environment. Ideally, a Year 0 student should be able to listen carefully to stories, follow instructions, sit quietly on the mat, raise hand to ask a question, put on shoes and jersey, put bag away, wash hands, sit and eat food at break times, pack bag and carry it, and so on.

Liz Lapish, an experienced Year 0/1 teacher at Maungawhau School in Auckland, agrees that basic school readiness is really important in making new entrants feel confident, positive, and able to cope with the practical independent challenges of being “a big school kid”.

For most freshly turned five-year-olds there is generally no expectation to have a firm grasp on reading and writing yet.

Inconsistencies between ECE services

Lapish says that in her experience, while some ECE centres focus well on school readiness, others do not, creating a huge barrier to learning for some children in the class.

“There is such a huge variety in the quality of teaching and learning in ECE centres around my school and some of my parents have been horrified when I have had to inform them that their child, who has been in an expensive day care environment, has very little academic knowledge nor readiness for school skills.

“It is heart-breaking to see new entrants who have little confidence and self-esteem as they can see that their peers are more capable and knowledgeable than themselves. Children shouldn’t have to feel like that, particularly at five, when beginning school should be fun and exciting.”

Lapish believes there needs to be more consistency between ECE centres in their approach to school readiness.

“I feel that it is about time that the Government needs to put some greater thought and effort into giving all five-year-old children the same opportunity to achieve when they arrive at school by getting a more consistent and quality-based early childhood programme specifically for children four and a half years of age.”

Indeed, there is variable quality. In 2011, the Education Review Office (ERO) looked at the various transition programmes run by ECE centres and found that, while many were excellent, some were well below standard and involved inappropriate skill and drill teaching that wasn’t meaningful to children. Further to this report, ERO’s national evaluations last year called to strengthen ECE practice so that all services are reflective and intentional about curriculum priorities.

However, chief executive of New Zealand Childcare Association, Nancy Bell, says the idea of applying a consistent approach across all ECE centres is not entirely straightforward.

“I think that different ECE services – and likely different schools – will hold differing views on what children ‘should’ be able to do on school entry. Most ECE services will focus on developing positive learning dispositions by ‘noticing, recognising and responding’ to individual children’s interests and strengths within a broadly enabling curriculum.”

Bell says there is likely to be differing emphases on typical school readiness behaviours, depending on how much they are valued in a specific setting, as determined by discussion amongst teachers, parents and children.

“Our view is that the education system should wrap around the child to support best continuity of learning. Ideally this means the ECE services and schools communicate about the children in their communities and how best to support good transitions. This will inevitably involve some ‘preparing’ for the new context of school, but also, ideally, some continuity of practices that are age appropriate and support children’s competence and confidence.”

The difficulty, as Lapish suggests and Bell acknowledges, is that this communication is complicated by the fact that most schools draw their children from many ECE services. In many cases, these may be located nearer to children’s parents’ workplaces than where they live and will go to school and hence the relationship between an ECE service and a school may be minimal and occur only through the parents.

Is Te Whāriki still relevant?

One thing that is shared by most early childhood centres is Te Whāriki, the curriculum or guidelines for early childhood education in New Zealand.

Most early childhood organisations hold Te Whāriki in high esteem. Selena Fox, chief executive of New Zealand Tertiary College, believes Te Whāriki remains relevant and describes is as “a very wise document”.

“I believe it is a real gift to our sector,” says Fox.

“It is not a script but a set of guidelines to help enable early childhood educators to make sensible, wise choices.”

While many, like Fox, count its non-prescriptive nature as one of its virtues, there have been calls for better implementation of Te Whāriki in early childhood centres.

The 2012 ECE Taskforce, while taking the view that Te Whāriki has stood the test of time well, called for a review of how it was being implemented.

Consequently, the Education Review Office focused on the implementation of the strands of Te Whāriki in its 2013 national evaluation of

New Zealand early childhood education. The ERO report found that many ECE services are inclined to focus more on the strands of Wellbeing and Belonging rather than Contribution, Communication, and Exploration.

The ERO report is an indication that there is more work needed to widen and deepen ECE curriculum implementation and to ensure that all children access the full ECE curriculum.

There is also the question of how well Te Whāriki aligns with The New Zealand Curriculum.

Claire McLachlan, professor in childhood education at Massey University, believes there is a “mismatch” between the two curriculum documents. She believes there needs to be more done within teacher education to span the early years (zero to eight years) and bridge Te Whāriki with The New Zealand Curriculum.

Te Whāriki … is sadly out of step with both research and changes in population that make multilingualism and multiliteracies much more important than Te Whāriki acknowledges.”

Bell disagrees. “I think that there is strong alignment between the two documents.”

She points out that both Te Whāriki and The New Zealand Curriculum include domain-specific knowledge – that is, key learning areas – and generic competencies.

“I think it’s likely that schools may focus more on domain knowledge and ECE services more on generic competencies but both contexts will teach both in an integrated way.”

Bell says that building professional knowledge between ECE services and schools could only strengthen practice in both settings.

The National Standards burden on a new entrant Lapish believes a head start on basic literacy and numeracy skills can be advantageous to a child’s learning, particularly as the requirements of Year 1 National Standards mean there is a huge amount of learning that young children must achieve alongside just settling into school life.

National Standards have attracted much controversy since their inception, including some questioning over its appropriateness to measure five-year-olds.

“I don’t think that the Ministry of Education… seems to understand the consequences and pressure that National Standards has placed on young children and their parents, and they clearly don’t understand that not all children have access to quality ECE opportunities.”

Lapish believes the ideal class size for a Year 0 class is 15 students, with a maximum of 18, particularly given the inequality of ECE learning programmes and experiences and the demands of National Standards.

“We don’t have the luxury of time to allow children to cruise into school anymore, so academically, it certainly gives children a boost if they can hold a pencil correctly and have some development of fine motor skills for writing, can write their own name, can identify both the letter name and sound in their name, may know other letter name and sounds, etc.”

Literacy and numeracy

McLachlan says that early childhood teachers should be working towards the Literacy Learning Progressions for school entry, but in her experience, very few ECE teachers know about these.

McLachlan, who has published widely on the topic of early literacy, says the research evidence is really clear that children who enter school with strong “literate cultural capital” will do better at school than those who don’t.

International research such as the National Early Literacy Panel Report (NELP, 2009) states that there is strong evidence on the importance of 11 aspects of literacy learning in early childhood. Of these, the most significant are alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness (awareness of sounds in words), and vocabulary. Alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness are needed for decoding and encoding (reading and spelling), while vocabulary is needed for comprehension.

Lapish thinks all children need to be given the opportunity to learn basic literacy and numeracy skills, especially in their last six months of pre-school – although she sees no problem with encouraging these skills at younger ages if the child shows interest in learning.

“I don’t believe that children should have to wait until they go to school to learn skills that they are naturally drawn to learn.”

McLachlan agrees. “I would argue that children’s thirst for knowledge should be encouraged. There is no reason not to encourage reading and writing in children younger than five as long as it is done in an appropriate meaningful way, such as letter writing to Grandma, playing scrabble, or joint readings of favourite books.”

When to start formalised learning?

Any conversations about literacy and numeracy in ECE settings need to be carefully balanced with those about the primal needs of young children, their natural urges to play, discover, and create.

In the UK, children begin formalised learning at four years old. While many New Zealand teachers may feel this is too young, there is some concession for the fact that in ‘Reception’, children all receive the same opportunity to learn basic numeracy and literacy skills and school readiness required for school and enter Year 1 on roughly equal footing.

While the notion of formalised learning at ECE level is generally not supported in New Zealand, some new entrant teachers feel that it would be of great benefit if ECE teachers kept track of where children were at, and focused on ensuring that all were equipped with the basic skills before starting school.

“I believe that children must be allowed to be children, we don’t need to formalise them too soon but in today’s world it would be a benefit for all children if they all could arrive to school and with all having an understanding of the simple basics,” says Lapish.

PD and teacher education

Part of the problem, according to research conducted by McLachlan and Alison Arrow, is that many ECE teachers lack in-depth understandings of both how literacy develops and what are the most effective pedagogies for supporting literacy learning in ECE settings.

“We have had some success with different approaches to professional learning, but the most effective methods are quite time consuming (for teachers and for us), and realistically, are too expensive to be used across the board,” says McLachlan.

Bell agrees that professional learning is essential for ECE teachers.

“We think there is a need for professional development for ECE teachers so that they are being very intentional in their curriculum choices, in collaboration with their communities.”

McLachlan believes that fixing the teacher knowledge problem has to start in initial teacher education programmes.

However, McLachlan says there are difficulties with this approach as well, due to the ideological positioning of some lecturers who don’t think that domain knowledge (such as literacy or numeracy) should play a large part in ECE and are more interested in collective learning and communities of learners in ECE rather than dealing with the issues of individual differences and children with particular learning needs.

“There is a somewhat dangerous ideological ‘strengths-based’ position adopted in New Zealand, which means that some children’s learning needs are either minimised or overlooked.”

It is therefore unsurprising that ECE centres differ so heavily, when there are such different schools of thought on some of the fundamentals around early childhood education at teacher education level.

When is the right time to start school?

Many schooling systems around the world, including the UK’s and the United States’, have children start school on the same date – usually 1 September – while in New Zealand, children typically start school the day they turn five.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both systems with regard to timing, age, teaching and class sizes.

McLachlan points out that the Starting School research conducted in Australia identified that schools need to be ready for children, not children ready for school – an important distinction by her reckoning. “Regardless of when and how we start children at school, children will never all be the same.”

Lapish, who has taught in both the UK and New Zealand, does not believe either system presents any management issues for her in the classroom. She thinks we have it about right in New Zealand, with most children ready for school at five years of age.

“Juggling different entry dates is not a problem as usually you know they are coming and they just slot into academic groups as they arrive depending on what they actually can do or know.”

Legally, children do not have to start school in New Zealand until they are six – a fact that is not widely known by parents.

“What I would like to see is that parents are made aware that children do not have to start school at five. It would be helpful if ECE teachers could identify and have discussions with parents of children who could do with some extra time just playing and maturing more within their early childhood environment.

“Some children – usually boys – really struggle with starting school at five. They are just not ready. It’s too late when they have got to my door and many parents are unaware that this is possible. Last year, one boy in my class would have really gained more by being given more time at pre-school and his mother said she would have happily kept him in early childhood for a little longer as she was aware of his social and academic immaturity. She sent him to school because she thought she had to. He certainly wasn’t ready for the challenges of school, nor the complexity of school life. It took him six months to be ready to learn.”

There is some debate over whether it is wise to hold children back.

“The very old maturational notion of giving children the ‘gift of time’ simply delays children further,” says McLachlan.

“In reality, I like our system of starting school individually but think we could do more in terms of putting support in place for children in their first year of school. Currently, our formal assessment of learning does not occur until children are six years – the research suggests that the earlier intervention can occur the better, so some children do not get the support they need in a timely manner.”

McLachlan says that readiness is a really problematic concept as children are on a developmental continuum, which is influenced by both biological and environmental factors.

There has been much research on the differences between girls and boys when it comes to school readiness. Lapish agrees that, generally speaking, boys often require more time and opportunity to play and be active and do not show the same appetite for academic learning as girls of the same age, who often want to do writing, reading, drawing and play teachers.

The transition itself

Research shows that the transition to school process is the most important transition a child will ever make as it is their first significant transition in their life. If it is not a smooth or positive experience children can be very apprehensive when experiencing other transition processes in the future.

So what makes the ideal transition?

The aforementioned Starting School study showed that the transition is different for children, their parents and their teachers – they all have different expectations.

Lapish thinks it is great if the new entrant teachers can visit the children in their kindergartens and ECE centres before they come to school. She also suggested, based on the experience of her daughter’s kindergarten, that once a term, Year 1 classes could have an open hour or morning whrre the local ECE centres come and visit as a big group to give the children a feel for what school is like.

School visits are important and every school has their own protocols around this. Some encourage just two, others more. Lapish thinks about four visits is ideal.

“To prepare the individual child, most children benefit from about four visits, usually once per week for about an hour and a half leading up to their fifth birthday. Most children are fine with this but some need longer so what I do is offer the parent the opportunity to squeeze a few extra sessions if I feel it would help the child settle easier on the big day.”

She also advocates the ‘buddy system’, a practice used in many Year 0 classes.

Moreover Lapish feels a better and more consistent system for children six months prior to their fifth birthday would significantly improve transition to school.

“By having six months in ECE that is purely focused on school readiness skills and basic literacy and numeracy knowledge but learnt through a developmental approach (play dough, sandpit, cutting, pasting etc.) that is fun and interesting would suit many children.

“More communication between schools and the ECE centres in their areas would be great too.”

Pre-schools on site

One suggestion for making the transition to school from early childhood education is to establish pre-schools on the same sites as schools. A growing number of schools are now pursuing this option, thanks to a shift in Ministry of Education policy.

Among them is Amberley School in North Canterbury. Principal Kevin O’Halloran told the Herald last year that he hoped it would eventually be mandatory for primary schools to have a pre-school on site.

Like Liz Lapish, he agreed that more children were arriving at school without the necessary basic knowledge.

Having the preschool on site is likely to encourage more people to attend early childhood education. Despite 20 hours’ free early childhood funding, poorer communities struggle with extra costs, transport problems, and a lack of centres.

Lapish thinks it is an excellent concept. Based on her experience working in a school in the Hokianga with a pres-chool onsite, Lapish found it was hugely beneficial for the children, as they were able to visit her class regularly and get to know her – their future teacher – as well as partake in school activities like singing and sports.

Lapish found it beneficial from a teacher’s perspective too as she got the opportunity to develop relationships with the children and get a better idea of their potential learning needs.

“It completely relaxed the children and gave them confidence. School wasn’t this big scary strange or daunting experience for them. It was fun and positive and ensured greater confidence and they were super keen to get to five as quickly as possible.”

Lapish likens the flow-on experience of the Hokianga school to that achieved by the school she taught at in London, which incorporated the kindergarten and reception classes.

However, McLachlan counters that if there is no transition programme in operation then it makes little difference whether or not it is on the same site as the school.

“Ideally co-location should enhance transition, but this still depends on collaboration between centre and school.”

Building better bridges

Collaboration between the sectors sounds good in theory, but studies have shown that it doesn’t translate as easily into practice.

In research conducted by University of Auckland educationalists and published in Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, it was found that of early childhood educators and school teachers’ beliefs and practices about the transition – and despite a commitment to collaborate – early childhood educators and school teachers had very different expectations of each other and most were dissatisfied with the current arrangements. The study highlights the need for a shared commitment to cooperating.

There are many possible reasons why collaboration is not as good as it could be in some areas: inconsistencies in early childhood teacher education or a need for more professional learning perhaps? Different emphases placed on aspects of ECE and primary curricula? Or perhaps a need for a more prescriptive transition programme between ECE and school? Maybe a better approach to sharing professional experience between sectors? Or simply better communication between ECE, school and family? Maybe a commitment to improving all of these things?

Each suggestion will no doubt bring forward its proponents and opponents, but whatever it takes will surely be worth it if it means children are getting the best possible start to their education.

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