Guy Roberts-Holmes, Jan Georgeson & Verity Campbell-Barr

The competing discourses of school readiness

Guy Roberts-Holmes, Jan Georgeson & Verity Campbell-Barr UCL IoE / University of Plymouth Friday 3 May 2019

BERA’s 2019–2020 research commission on the early years – entitled Competing Discourses of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC): Tensions, Impacts and Democratic Alternatives across the UK’s four jurisdictions – is focussing the first of its four seminars on school readiness. The research commission and seminar build upon the BERA-TACTYC Early Childhood Research Review 2003–2017, which stated that ‘ECEC is used for preventative, reparative and restorative purposes, in ways that are linked to outcomes measures, whilst fundamental structural inequalities remain’ (BERA & TACTYC, 2017, p. 111). The seminar expands upon this critique by exploring the assemblage of policy initiatives around the concept of school readiness, and this blog introduces some competing arguments surrounding school readiness.

Internationally, school readiness is presented as ‘a viable strategy to close the learning gap and improve equity in achieving lifelong learning and full developmental potential among young children’, and is discussed as having three dimensions: ‘children’s readiness for school; schools’ readiness for children; and the readiness of families and communities to help children make the transition to school’ (UNICEF, 2012). Arguments framed within discourses of equality and human capital are also evident in UK documentation. To take one example: ‘for too many children, especially those living in the most deprived areas, educational failure starts early’ (Ofsted, 2014, p. 4). The DfE and Ofsted (2014; 2017) state that young children’s school readiness is critical for ensuring ‘equality of opportunity’ and the mitigation of ‘failure’. School readiness thus ensures a level playing field for all children, and is central to closing the attainment gap between different socioeconomic groups. School readiness measurements provide early years professionals with information with which to identify children’s needs early on, enabling them to make pedagogical interventions leading to ‘equality of opportunity’.

‘Concerns have been raised about a narrowing of the early learning goals to “ready” young children for success in primary schools’ accountability culture.’

On the other hand, Early Education (2018) has raised concerns about a narrowing of the early learning goals to ‘ready’ young children for success in primary schools’ accountability culture, particularly the phonics screening check in year 1 and SATS in year 2. TACTYC (2017) notes how primary schools’ test-based culture, and their inappropriate pedagogy for young children, have cascaded down into the early years in the form of ‘school readiness’. For example, recent policy shifts towards formalised school-readiness include narrowed early years foundation stage early learning goals emphasising numeracy and literacy, a greater emphasis on preparation for the phonics screening check as exemplified by Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report (2017) and the proposed reception baseline assessment, which is focussed on numeracy and literacy. A BERA-convened expert panel has described RBA as ‘flawed, unjustified and totally unfit for purpose’ (2018), and the More Than a Score coalition has stated that the early years ‘should not include tests that ignore all that four-year-olds can do and turn them into data points’. All this has been exacerbated by the Ofsted inspection framework that focusses on reductionist and datafied school readiness ‘outcomes’, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, ‘ability’ grouping at ever earlier ages, and ‘gaming’ the required outcomes (Bradbury & Roberts-Holmes, 2018).

Given these contested discourses surrounding early years school-readiness, this seminar – which will be held at the University of Manchester on Thursday 9 May – asks, What is understood as ‘school readiness’, and what might be its benefits and drawbacks? The seminar also intends to explore the extent to which school-readiness outcomes shape early-years education, curriculum and pedagogy, and what alternatives and possibilities there might be. The discussion, ideas and analysis generated by the seminar will form part of the BERA research commission’s early childhood report, which will publish in 2020.


Bradbury, A., & Roberts-Holmes, G. (2017). The Datafication of Primary and Early Years Education: Playing with Numbers. Abingdon & New York: Routledge

Early Education (2018, January 30) What’s wrong with Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report? [briefing]. London. Retrieved from

British Educational Research Association [BERA] & TACTYC (2017). BERA-TACTYC Early Childhood Research Review 2003–2017. London. Retrieved from

Goldstein, H., Moss, G., Sammons, P., Sinnott, G., & Stobart, G. (2018) A baseline without basis: The validity and utility of the proposed reception baseline assessment in England. London. Retrieved from

Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted] (2014) Are you ready? Good practice in school readiness. London. Retrieved from

Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted] (2017). Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools. London. Retrieved from

More Than a Score (2019). What we do [webpage]. Retrieved from

TACTYC (2017, December). Bald Beginnings: A Response to Ofsted’s (2017) report, Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools by December 2017. Retrieved from

United Nations Children’s Fund [Unicef] (2012). School readiness: A conceptual framework. New York.

Dr Guy Roberts-Holmes is an associate professor at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy at UCL, Institute of Education. He has researched the introduction of the revised early years foundation stage (DfE, 2012) and The Introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment (National Union of Teachers [NEU] and Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 2015), which won the 2016 BERA Impact Award. His Ability Labelling in the Early Years and Key Stage One project (NEU, 2017) demonstrated the negative impacts of ability labelling upon young children leading to poor wellbeing. His latest book (with Dr. Alice Bradbury), The Datafication of Early Years and Primary Education (Routledge, 2017), examines the development of hyper-accountability and governance through processes of digitalisation.

Dr Jan Georgeson is senior research fellow in early education development at the University of Plymouth, and has a professional background as a teacher of young children with special educational needs. She has also worked and volunteered as a Portage worker supporting parents and carers of children with special educational needs. Jan carried out research at Birmingham University from 1995 onwards, completing an EdD in educational disadvantage and special educational needs in 2006. She has carried out national and international research into professional development for early years practitioners and support for families of young children at risk of learning delay, as well as ways of supporting teachers to develop children’s computational thinking. Jan is currently researching a longitudinal intervention to support funded two-year-olds, and has a particular interest in how practitioners work closely with children who have speech, language and communication needs.

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr is an associate professor in early childhood studies within the Plymouth Institute of Education. She teaches on the BA in early childhood studies, the MA in education and the EdD, along with supporting PhD students. She is also an active researcher, and is currently undertaking a project exploring child-centred diversity in quality early childhood education and care.

Prior to her current role, she was a European research fellow in the Faculty of Child and Adult Education at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. While in Hungary she conducted a research project on the knowledge, skills and attitudinal competences for quality early childhood education and care.