A LOST generation of young Leeds children are turning up to their first day of school unable to feed themselves, still wearing nappies and many of them speaking no English at all.
Experts say huge numbers of children – many from the city’s poorest backgrounds – are “slipping through the net” of mainstream services for the vital first few years of their lives, leaving them struggling to play catch-up from the start.
New statistics reveal Leeds is languishing at the very bottom of a league table of 152 educational authorities when it comes to early years development.
Primary school teachers say they are “teachers not trainers”, but are “left to pick up the pieces”. Now Leeds council bosses have put an action plan in place.
‘WE are not trainers or nursery nurses, we are teachers, yet we are picking up the pieces for many children’s delayed development’.
These are the words of one Leeds primary school teacher, who says poverty, malnutrition and a changing demographic are all playing a part in the disturbing rise of a lost generation of young Leeds children who are starting life from the back foot and who have “slipped through the net” of mainstream services from birth to school-starting age.
Wide-ranging research among the city’s primary schools by education bosses has revealed a high number of children, aged four or five, who are at very low stage of development, with many coming in to their first year of school with nappies on, unable to eat with a knife and fork and many speaking no English at all.
At the same time, newly revealed statistics have ranked Leeds 152nd out of 152 local authorities in the early years stage foundation stage ‘low achievers gap’. The city is eight per cent behind the national average.
The city is also in the worst performing ‘quartiles’ for numeracy and literacy at Key Stage 1.
The teacher, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s shocking, but I do think it’s becoming more difficult.
“There are children who will turn up to school without having had breakfast, or from day to day they are not properly nourished, and they do not perform well.”
She said the increasing number of children from Eastern European backgrounds, many of whose parents don’t speak English either, are particularly vulnerable, as are many children from single parent and lower-income families.
“It all contributes,” she said. “It puts extra pressure on teachers, especially when you teach a class of 33, and often there is just one teaching assistant.”
She said earlier “intervention”, and better, cheaper and easier to access pre-school provision, were vital to giving children a better chance when they reach the school gates. “A lot of children do slip through the net and are playing catch-up from the start, especially if they have not had the support at home,” she said.
“And as they progress through school, it gets harder for them because they are expected to perform to the same targets as all the other kids. It’s such a shame, because the children feel the stress.
“Rather than about procedures and targets, it should be about individual children and getting additional aid and support.”
Leeds council bosses say the nature of the changing and growing population of Leeds brings “particular challenges”, and they have put an action plan in place to deal with an acknowledged problem.
Coun Judith Blake, the city’s children’s services portfolio holder, said the zero to five years age range is “an absolute area of focus” for the council and it is acknowledged that “a number of children going into primary school are at a very very low stage of development” when they start their schooling.
ACTION PLAN WILL ENGAGE FAMILIES AND TRY TO NARROW THE GAP
Leeds is ranked 152nd out of 152 local authorities in the early years stage foundation stage ‘low achievers gap’.
The figures are laid out in the new Annual Standards Report, an extensive assessment across all educational stages based on teachers’ feedback.
Coun Judith Blake, the council’s children’s services lead, said the department has now put together a raft of measures to tackle the delayed child-development issue head-on.
Key to this, she said, was the council’s decision to keep all of its children’s centres open at a time when many other major cities are closing theirs.
The new action plan includes an ‘Early Start’ programme working with health staff and targeting youngsters aged zero to two. “We have got a big programme to get families to engage and we have qualified teachers in our children’s centres,” she said. “We want to focus on the quality of provision for kids. It’s an enormous challenge, but we are determined.”
SEE TOMORROW’S YEP FOR MORE ON THE CITY’S ‘LOST CHILDREN’
YEP SAYS: ‘THERE’S NO EXCUSE FOR A SINGLE CHILD TO SLIP THROUGH THE NET’
LEEDS is on a mission to be a ‘child friendly’ city, something the YEP is backing 100 per cent.
But today’s revelations also prove that catchy slogans and bulky strategy papers alone are simply not enough.
The city’s children are its future, ALL of them, and it is our collective duty to ensure they get the best chance in life.
Poverty and demographic changes, both of which have been identified as key factors driving the rise in under-developed youngsters in the city, are facts of life in a major city like Leeds.
And while statistics alone never tell the whole story, and the new Annual Standards Report is not all bad news, landing in the bottom of any league table is NEVER acceptable.
But in truth, have we taken our eye off the ball? Surely, with the resources we have - and despite austere times, we ARE a rich city - there is no excuse for any child slipping through the net.
The YEP welcomesthe new action plan, which includes working with healthcare professionals and a network of agencies to identify the most vulnerable families, and ensuring that vital services are within their financial and physical reach. This is clearly a deeply entrenched problem with no easy solution. But if ever a joined-up approach was needed, it is now. A balance also has to be struck between parental responsibility, and the responsibilty of the authorities.
Let’s work together to turn the slogans into facts.