Introducing our first Around Australia series: transitions to school.
The start of school is a major life event for children and families alike. Research shows us that children who have a positive start in early learning are likely to be more engaged learners at school, and that a positive school transition is also likely to help a child to experience ongoing academic and social success.
So are early and middle years educators doing all we can to make the transition period a success? And are our colleagues in schools aware of and receptive to the professional support that we can offer?
Last week we looked at a program for kindergarten children transitioning to OSHC and what one provider was doing to improve the process for kindergarten children. This week we begin an Around Australia series examining school transition stories in every state and territory. We will be sharing experiences from parents, educators, administrators and others as we go.
Even with an agreed National Quality Framework For Early Childhood Education and Care, and a National Curriculum for all school educators, the differences between jurisdictions remain (see box below: Starting Ages in Australia). While similarities are growing, many differences remain and while sometimes surprising, they offer us an opportunity to learn from each other.
New South Wales
We begin in New South Wales, where the main tool to connect early childhood services, families and schools is the Transition to School Statement.
This voluntary statement was introduced in September 2014 and records a child’s strengths, interests and preferred ways of learning. The early childhood service decides whether it will prepare a statement, and the child’s family then decides whether to make it available to the child’s intended school.
The NSW Department of Education’s early childhood directorate has been reviewing the effectiveness of the Transition to School Statement and CELA staff have participated in the discussions. At a recent NSW Early Learning Transition Advisory Group meeting, it was suggested more information is needed to help parents better understand what happens for children when they start school.
How do families see the transition experience?
For this story, we spoke to some families with children that started kindergarten in 2017. In particular, we wanted to know if they were aware of the Transition to School Statements, if the statements were used to communicate with their child’s new teacher, and if they thought the statements were of benefit.
Even with a small sample of families from Sydney and Wollongong, the inconsistencies were evident and backed up the suggestions that department advisers and educators are making to improve the process.
One mother, Janelle, said while her son received a statement from his preschool, and while she knew the school staff read it, she had no sense that it made any difference to the way his teacher viewed his transition. Although she did note a lot of her son’s preschool buddies were placed in the same class and wondered if this was related to the social connections that were described in their statements.
Another parent, Anna, said that the statement was completed and she shared it with her son’s school, but she wished it could have been a more detailed statement as her son has a global development delay.
Several other parents we spoke to advised that they weren’t aware the statement existed. Yet others said they received a statement and passed it on to the school but received no feedback and were unsure if it had any effect in the way their children were supported in their transition to kindergarten
A parent from Sydney’s south, Jenny, told us that her daughter’s preschool refused to do the ‘official’ Transition to School Statement as they had their own procedures. They did not intend to change this, unless the statement became compulsory. She didn’t feel she had enough information to know which approach would be better for her daughter: the preschool’s existing procedures or the transition statement.
Educators’ experiences of the transition statements in NSW
One educator we spoke to about the NSW transition statements agreed there was a mixed response from families and schools.
“As the statements have to be sent to families first and they have a choice as to whether to send them to the schools ECTs feel they are unable to be completely honest.”
We didn’t find any services that relied solely on transition statements as their communication with schools, with most saying they tried to make personal contact at least once with each child’s future school. However some central Sydney services admitted it was very difficult to build relationships with schools when a class of preschool children were enrolling in as many as 40 different schools.
“We try to get to everyone’s schools but our children come from such a mix of areas: some are local, others come to us because their parents work nearby but they will be attending school near home. One year we had nearly 50 different schools to contact and it’s just not possible to build a professional relationship when you are spread that thin.”
And another educator shared her frustration at the effort she and her team put into the voluntary Transition to School Statements last year, only to receive feedback from parents later that the local school’s kindergarten teachers had told families they ‘shouldn’t have bothered’.
“Some parents still have younger children with us and they all told us the same story from orientation sessions – it was so sad to hear all the work we had done was going to be ignored.”
On the whole, the educators we contacted were happy that NSW had a
School readiness vs transitioning to school
Talking to our own advisors at CELA we explored other differences that are likely to apply to early and middle years services across Australia.
School readiness dominates the thinking of many families and school teachers. Can the child hold a pencil, write their name, recite the alphabet, wait their turn and follow directions? Can they find their way to the playground and back to class, can they wait until break times for their meals, can they recognise numbers up to 10 or 20 or 30?
Our experience shows, however, that early years educators also want to share with families and schools the personality and aptitudes the child has shared or educators have observed in their time together. They want a way to communicate how they have seen the child connect ideas and test theories, negotiate friendships and overcome obstacles. While families would also want these aspects shared with their child’s new teacher, they may not be aware there is the potential to do so with Transition to School Statements or similar procedures.
And, as we saw in the experience shared last week by the St Paul’s OSHC service, middle years educators observe that very young children suddenly thrust into a mixed group extending to more than twice their own age can struggle to find security and their responses may vary wildly, from ‘acting out’ to keep up with the older students, to withdrawing socially.
The difference is between those seeing a new kindergarten child as a blank slate and those seeing the start of school as just another step on a continuum of learning and development.
This disconnect is also a reflection of the value placed on the educational work undertaken in preschools, long day care, family day care and other early learning settings.
Key issues from the NSW Early Learning Transition Advisory Group
One way that NSW is approaching this disconnect has been to bring together peak bodies like CELA and others with regulatory authority staff and department researchers in the NSW Early Learning Transition Advisory Group to guide recent consultations and consider the findings.
Our summary of the consultations into the following key areas follows:
- More collaboration is needed to develop quality relationships and sharing information between early childhood centres and schools. It was suggested that not all schools are engaged with the transition process and there is inconsistency around the use of Transition Statements. Some schools see orientation programs as transition.
- Professional development or learning was suggested for early childhood educators in how to write the statement with the audience in mind. With the aim to bridge the gap between school language and prior to school language.
- The school transition statement needs to be looked at. There are concerns the report is too long and time consuming and if schools are not reading it anyway, why write it. A digital version of the statement was suggested.
School starting ages in Australia
Kindergarten/Kindy – can start in first term if turning five by July 31 that year.
Prep – can start in first term if turning five by April 30 that year.
Prep – children must be five by 30 June in the year they enrol.
Queensland also has approved kindergarten programs designed to help to prepare children for the Prep year. These are not compulsory and are generally offered by kindergarten and long day care services. Children must be at least 4 by 30 June in the year they attend the program.
Pre-primary – can start in first term if turning five by June 30 that year. Pre-Primary begins at the age of four or five (as long as the child with turn five by June 30 of that year).
Reception – can start in first term if turning five by April 30 that year.
Prep – must be five by January 1 of the school year. In Tasmania you may enrol your child in Kindergarten if that child turns four on or before January 1 in the year they start. A child that turns five on or before the January 1 must start school that year. Children will start in the Preparatory Year.
Kindergarten – can start in first term if turning five by April 30 that year.
Transition – can start in first term if turning five by June 30 that year.
In NSW, Victoria, WA and ACT children can start well before their fifth birthday or parents can decide to start them the following year after they turn five. Home schooling is a legal option in Australia, provided parents comply with their state laws. Home schooling offers parents and guardians an alternative to state or private schooling. Parents take on the primary responsibility for their child’s education.