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Laura Perrins: Primary school is more important than secondary. Toby Young’s new book helps parents lay the foundations


Toby Young and Miranda Thomas have written a book for parents, entitled – perhaps a little frighteningly – What Every Parents Needs to Know, How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School. You need to know what is in these pages dear parents, or else. I was very eager to read this as my daughter had just entered reception class, and I must say it did not disappoint. It is indeed, very helpful.

The book is pretty weighty clocking in at just over 400 pages, but I assume is not designed to be read from cover to cover in a few weeks.

Parents can consult this book as their children progress through primary school. It is split into chapters focusing on each primary school year from Reception to Year 6. Within the chapters the key topics are set out, and the new national curriculum is set out in detail where relevant. This book really does much handholding and saves parents from having to look up the curriculum themselves.

It also has short chapters on Reports and Assessments, Special Educational Needs and even Times Tables. Each chapter ends with a list of many games and resources you can play at home – from books to apps – to help your child in school.

The book does set out briefly but cogently the key debates in education, such as whether teaching skills should trump knowledge. The authors – and I agree – are firmly of the belief that knowledge is a necessary step before higher order skills, such as critical thinking, can be developed.

My eldest daughter has just started school so I closely read the reception chapter and the short guide to reading and writing. If you have never come across phonics before, the short guide is helpful. I was condemned to whole word reading when at school and I do not believe I have ever recovered. Happily most schools now will only teach phonics.

In the section what can you do to help, the authors tell us: “The most important thing you can do at home is to read aloud to your child.” They also say, “numerous studies have shown that reading to your child is the best way to help them learn to read”. This brings me to my first quibble. I believe that the authors here are being too, well, conservative and cautious.

They could have gone further and just proposed teaching your own child to read, or at least ‘decode and blend.’ It is true that reading to your child at this stage is incredibly important as it teaches them that you value and enjoy reading, and they should too. It is also a great way to spend time together. But even repeated reading to them, will not, as far as I believe ‘help them learn to read.’ This can only be done through a phonics programme.

Perhaps I say this, as I taught my daughter to read (decode and blend) in the summer before reception. It is worth stating that many parents will do this, even if they do not tell you. I am not saying the book should propose this for every child – a summer born boy may not be ready but an autumn born girl often is.

The authors do set out the key phonics programmes and as these can be purchased easily in the internet. I think it worth saying that if parents have the time and willing you can teach your child the basics before they enter school.

This should not let the school off the hook, of course, as I firmly believe that if a child is struggling to read after six years of education the responsibility lies with the school, not the parents. However teaching to read gives them the very best start and can be done in 6 – 8 weeks at about twenty minutes a day. That is four Peppa Pigs, or two Ben and Hollys, or one Little Princess.

The book also describes what is expected in the subject computing, namely coding. This is very intimidating for me at least, so it was helpful to have the basics set out.

Perhaps the authors should have mentioned at the beginning that primary education is incredibly important – more important than secondary. I am not too sure parents understand this as many view primary as light-hearted fun. Primary is where the foundations are laid, and if they are made of sand, do not be surprised if your whole house comes crumbling down in secondary.

In sum, if you want to know what your child gets up to every day for the six hours they are away from you in another person’s hands – read this book. If you want to help your child while they are at primary – read this book.

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