A child's life is full of monumental first steps and starting school is one of them. Yet a recent Unicef report on inequality of child wellbeing across the richest countries in the world highlighted the fact that the UK is continuing to let children fall behind in education.
This is a growing concern amongst children's charities, parents and educational professionals.
At Action for Children we surveyed over 1000 parents in the UK and found that nearly three fifths (59 per cent) are worried about their child being ready to start school by the age of five. 63 per cent of those parents were also concerned that once their child fell behind their peers at school-age, they would struggle to catch up well into adulthood.
It is understandable that parents worry about their child's development - we all do. But, the reason why we should listen to their concerns is because what happens in the early years is critical for children's futures.
Although it is difficult to define what it means to be ready for school, I think most would agree on the importance of supporting every child to develop happily, taking into account each child's individuality and different needs. 'Good development' encompasses a range of different areas relating to children's physical health and their ability to communicate, understand their feelings, make friends, and be curious about the world around them. It's not just about learning to read and write.
If children are not supported when they're struggling with their development in their earliest years of life, it can be difficult for them to catch up once they get to school, as analysis by the Department for Education shows. This then impacts on their school career, whether they go on to find a rewarding job in the future, and even their health down the line.
This should be the starting point for the Government as they promise to improve life chances. We need to measure whether we are doing right by children right from the beginning of their lives. Including an indicator for age five, covering child development, in the upcoming Life Chances Strategy, would help Government to drive policies that could directly tackle the high levels of inequality in UK education.
Child development is influenced by a number of different factors, including household income, good access to essential health services and high quality childcare. Parenting plays an incredibly important role in development, and a child that has a positive learning experience within the home and then at nursery and at school will be better able to flourish. But parents shouldn't need to do this alone or think that asking for help is in any way a reflection on their parenting - and the Government has recognised this. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister said that parenting is 'the most important job we'll ever have', and promised to provide more support for parents.
For this support to be effective, Government needs to listen to parents about what they feel will help. Our polling told us that 39% of parents want support to be affordable, 38% want it to be non-judgemental, and 33% want to be able to really trust the source of any advice or practical help.
At Action for Children, we offer a range of services that can make a difference to children through supporting parents. These include activities that any parents can take part in, such as drop-in Stay and Play sessions where children can play with toys and one another. Also on offer are more intensive evidence-based programmes like Incredible Years and Triple P, that give parents the chance to develop skills such as putting consistent routines in place.
One mother, Shanika Hall, told me that after graduating she became pregnant with her daughter. With little support, she felt isolated and struggled with her confidence so started attending our Stay and Play sessions in Birmingham.
She explained how she felt really anxious because she didn't feel confident that she was helping her daughter to develop whilst she was so young herself. But after attending Stay and Play sessions her confidence grew - which in turn helped her daughter's confidence.
In fact, her daughter went from a shy girl who wanted to stick with her mother to a girl who couldn't wait to play, sing and interact with all the friends she had made. Parents like Shanika need more services to be available to them. Shanika is adamant that without the help she got her daughter's starting school would have been a struggle for both of them.
Our research shows that Shanika's experience is not unique. An overwhelming 75% of the parents we surveyed believe that more support is needed and that the Government should ensure that every child reaches a good level of development by the age of five.
We need to give children all the right building blocks so that they can feel ready for being in school. That way, they will have the best chance of thriving well into the future.