Children in Wales are starting primary school without basic skills like toilet training and the ability to speak, teachers have warned.

In shocking revelations, one teacher painted a “disturbing” picture of classes in which some children are not even able to understand what others are saying.

The findings have led one teachers’ union in Wales to today call for parents to use peer pressure to encourage those falling behind to take more responsibility for their child’s development.

Dr Philip Dixon, director of education union ATL, said the findings were “disturbing”.

“While it seems that some children are becoming more and more technologically sophisticated at an earlier age, a number of children are now arriving in school without even the basics in place,” he said.

“Surely all children should be toilet trained by the age of three?”

One teacher, who we will call Louise to protect her pupils’ privacy, said many children in her school are not able to take their shoes and socks off, put their arms into their coat sleeves or use a knife and fork.

Despite this, one six-year-old girl in another teacher’s class was given a Blackberry mobile phone for Christmas.

In another case, a six-year-old boy told her he could not read at home because his dad was, “too busy on the X-box”.

According to a survey we sent out to teachers across Wales, many children start school unable to write their name or count to 10.

And an incredible 100% of the 39 respondents said schools should be stricter about what stage of development a child has reached before they start school, and should draw up a contract with parents outlining what the school expects.

One teacher who responded to the survey said there needed to be more support for children before they reach school, adding: “Many people do not know how to help their children from the very start.

Louise, who has been in the profession for 20 years and lives in Denbighshire, said the real problem lay with some parents not teaching their children basic behavioural and social skills.

She said: “The large majority of parents are supportive of what we do, but a minority think teachers should be doing absolutely everything.

“They sit back and think we can do it in isolation, but we can’t do anything without their support and commitment to meet us halfway.”

She said in many schools in Wales, teaching in early years is a case of “crowd control”.

“The job is much harder than it ever was because it is not just about teaching children all the skills they need to read and write.

“You have got to deal with behaviour issues and crowd control before you can go anywhere with the learning itself.

“That wasn’t so much of a problem 10 or 15 years ago, but now we are seeing four or five children per class with really challenging behaviour. In the most severe cases those children can’t even be in a class setting.

“When you got a new class as a primary school teacher the first month is always hard going because it is all about setting down ground rules.

“Now teachers in reception and nursery are finding that process doesn’t last for a month but for the whole first term, from September to Christmas.”

Overall she said there has been a “decline” in the skills children have when they start school.

“Ten years ago, children of four or five were quite happy to put their own coat on,” she said.

“Perhaps they couldn’t do up the buttons or the zip, but they could put their arms through the holes. Now they just stand there with their arms outstretched waiting for you to do it for them.

“In PE children used to be able to take their shoes and socks off but some now struggle even to do that.

“Holding a knife and fork is also a problem. Many would far prefer to eat everything with a spoon because it’s easier.

“There are also more and more coming in who aren’t toilet trained and who aren’t yet out of nappies. A decade ago it might have been just three or four per class, but now its more like 10 or 15.

“Having said that, I think that might be due partly to the fact nappies are so brilliantly absorbent now that children don’t feel wet or uncomfortable, which means they don’t learn to break the habit.

“Maybe parents feel it’s too much hard work to toilet train them, or think they will do it when they are ready to.”

She added: “Most parents do try their best and I’m a parent too, so I know how hard it is, but it does seem like a small minority of parents just can’t be bothered – and that goes hand in hand with other things, like not taking the time to read or even just sit and talk to their child.

“Because of this some children can’t string two sentences together or make themselves understood, which can be a real problem for teachers, especially if that child can’t really understand them.

“I would say we don’t expect them to know their letters and numbers, but we would expect their speech to be developed enough so that they can understand.”

She said while many parents insist on strict bedtimes, many children continue to watch TV in their rooms or play computer games late into the night.

“Some even tell me they fall asleep with the TV on,” she said.

Dr Dixon said: “This lack of basics can have a profound affect all round. Not only do teachers have to try to make up for inadequate parenting but the other children suffer because of the amount of time that has to be spent with these underdeveloped children.

“This is not a problem that schools can solve on their own. We need to develop more effective support for some parents, but we also need to spell out to them more plainly their responsibilities.

“The other parents in a school can play a key role in ensuring that certain minimum standards of behaviour are to be expected.”

Peter Grigg, director of research and policy at the Family and Parenting Institute, said: “Children benefit the most when schools and families work together. We would urge more attention is given to enhance general parental involvement in both school and pre-school education, as one way to identify and address any development concerns without placing further pressure on the child.

“Alongside this, clear and accessible information should be available for parents on what they should be working towards in terms of their child’s development.”

What teachers said:

Of the 40 teachers who responded to our survey, 96.3% said parents should take more responsibility for their own child’s development.

But when it came to the question of whether schools should be stricter with parents, they disagreed.

Overall, 61.9% agreed that schools needed to be stricter, but that figure changed to 100% in year one (five-year-olds’) teachers.

Contrary to anecdotal evidence, early years teachers all agreed that children in their class were mostly toilet trained and said most are able to speak properly at the start of the school year.

However they said many could not handle basic functions like drinking from cups, eating with a knife and fork or putting on their own coats.

Some 75% of year one teachers said children starting their class could not write their name or count to 10.

When asked to give their views, one teacher said there were too many “couldn’t care less” teachers and headteachers.

Another questioned the usefulness of a contract between parents and the school, saying: “What would the contract involve – if your child does not make this level of progress the school or parent is at fault?

“Parents should have a duty to support their children’s learning, there should be greater levels of support in early parenthood for this to develop.

“Many people do not know how to help their children from the very start.

“More support at baby and toddler level would help – more health visitors, more home visits at a social level.

“More training about child development for all pupils in the upper end of secondary school.”

What parents said:

In total, 88 parents from around Wales responded to our survey.

Across all primary-level age groups, a surprisingly low number of children had computers or televisions in their rooms, while just 18.8% of respondents said their child had a mobile phone – and all those children were six or older.

Meanwhile 86.6% of parents said they spent a lot of time reading with their child, and 98.8% said they spent a lot of time talking to them.

Just one out of 82 parents admitted their child could not put on their own coat by the time they started school. Fourteen said their child could not use a knife and fork.

Of those with children aged three and four, 90.5% said their child watches three or less hours of television a day and 100% said their child plays less than three hours of computer games a day.

Most agreed their child did activities like drawing and painting at home, as well as having a set bedtime.

All also claimed their child was toilet trained when they started school.

Of 79 parents who responded to the statement, “when they started school, my child knew the alphabet”, 28 said they strongly agreed, 27 said they agreed, 22 said they did not agree and two said they strongly disagreed.

More than half of parents said their child did not know the months of the year when they started school and a quarter said they did not know the days of the week or their own birthday. However 70% of  respondents said their child could count from one to 10.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 75% of parents with children aged three and four said their child seemed more advanced than their classmates.

All agreed parents have a responsibility to teach their children basic skills before they start school and 57% of all respondents said teachers should also have responsibility for teaching basic skills, but more than half said schools should be stricter with parents.

When asked for their views, one parent, who said they lived in a “leafy northern suburb of Cardiff” said it was a question of attitude not knowledge, adding: “Some four year olds have very little self control and are clearly not being disciplined properly, let alone learning the alphabet.”

A few parents said schools should be clearer about what skills they expect children to have at particular ages.

One parent said: “It shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule as children do develop differently and it’s cruel to place pressure on children (via their parents) to do things they are simply not ready for.

“Having said that, parents should do their utmost to ensure they are stimulating and teaching their child instead of taking a back seat and expecting teachers to do the parenting, and as a result affecting the quality of education they are able to provide to the whole class.”

One respondent said they would appreciate more feedback from teachers.

“No one is the perfect parent and it is important that parents work closely with children and have more regular parent/teacher updates,” they said.

“In our school we have one at the beginning of year and one at the end, there should be one in the middle of the academic year to enable teachers and parents to discuss how they can work together to help the child develop further.”

By Clare Hutchinson

source: WalesOnline –