We need to better address the learning needs of children who are locked into trajectories of long-term low achievement, writes Geoff Masters.
By Year 3 there are wide differences in children’s levels of achievement in learning areas such as reading and mathematics, states Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive of ACER.
Writing in Teacher, Professor Masters notes that trajectories of low achievement often begin well before school, and many children are locked into trajectories of ‘underperformance’ that often lead to disengagement, poor attendance and early exit from school.
According to Professor Masters, some children are at risk because of developmental delays or special learning needs; some begin school at a disadvantage because of their limited mastery of English or their socioeconomically impoverished living circumstances; and some, including some Indigenous children, experience multiple forms of disadvantage.
The Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) reveals that 22 per cent of children starting school are ‘developmentally vulnerable’ in one or more areas. These children are less likely to make successful transitions to school and are at risk of poorer long-term educational outcomes that often lead to disengagement, poor attendance and early exit from school, Professor Masters writes.
The challenge of addressing the learning needs of children who begin school well behind the majority of their age group is sometimes described as the problem of children who ‘enter school not yet ready to learn’, Professor Masters notes. The reality, he observes, is that all children enter school ready to learn, but some enter school not yet ready to learn what schools are about to teach them or to function effectively in a school environment.
According to Professor Masters, it is vital that schools are ready and able to respond to the very different stages that children have reached upon entry to school. Also important is universal access to high-quality, affordable, integrated early childhood education and care, especially in the year before full-time school and for developmentally vulnerable children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
An alternative to viewing early childhood education through the lens of ‘school readiness’ is to recognise that, at any given age, children are at very different points in their learning and development, Professor Masters writes. The focus during the preschool years and also in the early years of school should be on establishing where children are in their long-term learning and development, and providing individualised support and learning opportunities.
The transition to school can be seamless, Professor Masters explains, through the provision of optimal learning environments and ongoing close monitoring of progress, especially for children at risk of falling further behind in their learning and development. ■
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‘Getting all children off to a good start’, written by Geoff Masters and published in Teacher, is available at teacher.acer.edu.au/geoff-masters