Leadership programme

Who will get your vote in education? But I’m only 5!

Samantha Smith

Principal

Barton Hill Academy

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of fortnightly blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

I am reminded of an interaction when I was leading a school in North London. It was the end of the summer holiday and I was going into school to get ready for the new term. On the way to the school building, I passed a three year old girl and her father. She was dressed in her school uniform, making her way to school. I stopped to tell them that they had got the date wrong and that school didn’t start for another week.

He smiled and let me know that his daughter was going to start in our Nursery class. She was so excited to be going to school that she wanted to get dressed in her uniform and practise walking to school every day so she was ready!

What policies would I like to see in education? Those that keep that level of hope, excitement and ambition alive. Making a good start in education is vital: it sets children up for success and ensures they acquire the fundamental knowledge of reading, writing and mathematics which will form the foundation for all future learning.

Early Years

I have always believed that our Early Years curriculum is the best part of the English education system. It prioritises the importance of developing the whole child with a focus on the prime areas of personal development, physical development and communication. It makes sure that learning is led by the child’s stage rather than their age with child-led learning in strong learning environments, including learning outside.

Could we do better in Early Years? Yes, we could reduce the class sizes to enable more high quality interactions with the children, but in the main, when done well, the Early Years curriculum and provision ensure children make a very strong start.

And then, at the age of 5, we decide our children are ready for the National Curriculum. They are ready to sit down at tables, to stay inside, to learn history, geography and science. They are ready to be tested and measured to check they are learning to decode well. We remove the focus on the prime areas, we only look at personal development within the PSHE lessons for 30 minutes a week and communication is an add on.

They are only 5!

What can we learn about the start of the education journey from high performing countries across the world?

Canada – There are strong maternity and paternity benefits and parenting support through the Early On or Strong Start Centres. Free full day kindergarten is available for four and five years olds, and attendance is compulsory from the age of 5. At the end of Kindergarten the Early Development Instrument is used to measure school readiness. School starts at 6 years old.

Singapore – Low-income families have access to wrap around support through KidStart. 3 – 6 year old children attend either a public or private kindergarten. The quality of this stage of education is regulated by the Early Childhood Development Agency.

Finland – There is a wide range of support for families including up to one year paid leave for parents. Pre-school is compulsory for children aged 5 and 6 and schooling starts at 7.

In February 2023 I spent a week at Kauhajoki school, 350 km North of Helsinki, as part of a leadership exchange through the Erasmus+ project.

The school forms the focal point in the small town of Kauhajoki. On the cold February morning when we visited the school, the children were making their way through snow covered streets mostly on foot or by bike. We were told that when the snow is deep many of the children come to school on skis. As you walked into the school, the children’s independence really stood out.

Movement around the school was calm and purposeful with little evidence of staff having to direct children’s movement. We started the day in the younger years (age 6 – 8). The children were in small classes of around 15 – 20 children. Their activities were mostly self led, with less evidence of formal, structured learning. We joined a crafts lesson. The children were all working on a sewing project, again mostly independently, asking for support when needed. Crafts and making were central to the school day across the primary phase.

Where we saw core learning, it was around developing key competencies in literacy and numeracy, allowing time for the children to develop their emergent writing and grasp key mathematical concepts. There seemed to be more time and less rush to get through content at this early stage of education.

At lunchtime the school came together in a central canteen, children and adults eating together. Lunch time was part of learning, a key social time of the day. After lunch, the younger children had the day beds brought out and settled down for a story and sleep.

What did I take away from the time in a Finnish school?

As with any visit to another education system, there will always be things that you feel work well in your own country and things you want to try out. Our trip to Finland led to a review of our Year 1 curriculum and the confidence to simplify what we wanted the children to learn. We also decided to incorporate outside learning into the school day.

My vote goes to…

As a country, we need to look at what we are doing for our 5 year olds. If I were in a position to make the decision, I would follow the example of strong performing systems and maintain Early Education until the age of 6 or even 7. This would include a strong focus on the key fundamentals of early reading, writing and mathematics, drawing on best practice in the teaching of phonics and NCETM’s work on mastering number.

My message to future Secretaries of State for Education in the UK: let’s make a system where our 5 year olds wake up at the end of August, excited for the start of the new school year!

Samantha Smith, Principal, Barton Hill Academy

Big Education

Leadership Programme

Applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives you the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Related post

How a sophisticated approach to supporting staff is essential both in a crisis and beyond

Nicola Noble

Related programmes

applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives leaders the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Who Will Get Your Vote in Education?

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of fortnightly blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

Staff login

Your courses

You are not yet enrolled in any courses. If you opted to Pay by Invoice on checkout, you will be enrolled once we have received payment, details of which can be found in your original order email.

A big welcome from us

You’ve read a number of our blogs and we’re delighted you’re interested in our work.

Become a member for FREE and enjoy…

Discounts on CPD opportunities

Unlimited access to our blog library