As thousands of children across Sheffield head to school for the first time this month, statistics suggest nearly a third may do without basic skills expected at that age.
Public Health England measures a child’s ‘school readiness’ based on whether they have reached a good level of development at the end of reception, before entering their first compulsory year of education aged five.
In Sheffield, just 69.8 per cent were deemed to meet that benchmark in 2016/17, the latest academic year for which data is available, meaning nearly 2,000 fell short.
That's lower than the national average of 70.7 per cent but higher than for several other big cities, including Manchester (66.2), Leeds (64.8) and Birmingham (65.9).
The abilities assessed include being able to grip a pencil and go to the toilet by yourself, but that does not mean 30 per cent of school starters in Sheffield have not mastered those particular skills.
They are among a wide range of criteria used to assess everything from language skills and numeracy to personal, social and emotional development, all of which children must meet to be deemed school ready.
Children who don't reach a good level by age five are likely to struggle to catch up in their later education, according to Ofsted.
So should parents in Sheffield be worried that the city’s children aren't getting the best start in life?
Not according to Maureen Hemingway, Sheffield Council’s senior adviser for early years, who believes the headline figure can be very misleading and claims the picture is improving yearly.
She says that the most important thing for a child is not that they begin school with a good standard of reading, writing or numeracy but that they do so ready to learn, which she claims is true for the vast majority of Sheffield’s school starters.
The ‘school readiness’ figure, she explains, only takes into account those judged ‘good’ in all areas on which their development is assessed.
It makes no allowance for the gulf in ability you would expect between a child starting school shortly after turning four and another who is nearly five, she says, nor for the fact some children may have shown less interest in one field than another.
She would prefer to focus on the proportion of children starting school with a good level of emotional development, who are able to manage their behaviour and form good relationships, which in Sheffield she says is over 91 per cent.
“I would argue that’s the most important figure because it means children are ready to learn,” she says.
“They can sit and listen attentively, they’re able to understand what you’re telling them and they can make friends.
“I’m less concerned about children having a good level of writing, reading or numeracy, because with the right support they’re going to get there.
“I think that figure of 91 per cent is a huge cause for celebration and reflects the hard work being done across Sheffield to support families with young children.
“It shows we have a really high proportion of children going into year one who are ready to take that next step forward.”
Ms Hemingway added that Sheffield's ‘Start Well’ programme, which aims to give children the best possible start in life regardless of their background, had been ‘very successful’.
She is particularly proud of how she says it is narrowing the gap between disadvantaged youngsters and those from more privileged backgrounds.
Early years workers in Sheffield, she explains, spend a lot of time helping parents understand the expected development of children at different ages and how they can support that.
“The children that worry me most are those who are just on the cusp not because they’re struggling to master one particular skill but because there’s not enough parental involvement or understanding and engagement,” she says.
“Children learn by modelling their behaviour on everything around them and the people available to talk to them and teach them, which is why that interaction with their parents is so important.”
Her thoughts chime with those of the Pre-school Learning Alliance (PLA), whose director Michael Freeston claims it is ‘deeply unhelpful' to focus too much on literacy and maths at so young an age,
“The focus should be on schools being ready for children and being able to meet their needs, not the other way around,” he said.
Boys are much less likely than girls to have reached a good level by the time they start year one, with 37 per cent of boys falling short in Sheffield, compared to just 23 per cent of girls.
Pupils from poorer backgrounds also fared worse, with just 55 per cent of those on free school meals in Sheffield achieving the benchmark.
Nationally, the percentage of children deemed school ready when they enter year one has risen steadily, from 51.7 per cent in 2013 to 70.7 per cent in 2017.
Paul Stockley, of Bradway Primary School, said: “Having the basic skills when they come to school is such a vital part of children’s wellbeing and ability to succeed in life.
“It’s an issue in parts of Sheffield and the country as a whole, where you get some children coming to school with very little exposure to reading, being read to and hearing adults speak with a range of vocabulary.”
He said schools could put in extra support to help those children catch up by providing a ‘language-rich’ environment and organising lots of trips and visits to broaden their experience.
He claimed cuts in government funding for children’s centres have reduced the support available to young families which is so important at an age when children’s brains are developing so rapidly.
He is also concerned about youngsters’ increasing exposure to tablets, mobiles and other electronic devices, which he fears is reducing parents’ interaction with their children at home.
He said it was not just children from poorer families who were missing out but those whose parents’ busy working lives meant they spent less time playing with their children.
Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, said: “The education secretary has pledged to halve the number of children starting year one without early speaking and learning skills by 2028, and will convene a summit in the autumn of businesses, broadcasters and a broad range of other organisations as part of a coalition to explore innovative ways to boost early language development and reading in the home.”