While the Department of Education is busy planning the introduction of 10 million pounds worth of assessment protocols for 4 year olds, children’s physical literacy appears to be declining.
Reports published in 2004 and 2005 based on the assessment of more than 600 primary school children’s motor skills indicated that the physical skills of 48% of 4–5 year olds and 35% of 8-9 years olds were immature. There was also a correlation between immature motor skills and lower educational performance using teacher assessment of baseline measures of education.
Subsequent unpublished interim reports have revealed a similar picture of children with immature motor skills performing less well on measures of educational attainment (SATS) than children whose motor skills were commensurate with age expectations.
These figures seemed staggeringly high at the time but recent ongoing research suggests that the decline in children’s motor skills has continued to increase over the last 13 years.
A study involving 116 children carried out in cooperation with the University of Loughborough between 2015 and 2017 using the Movement Assessment Battery for Children (ABC-2), revealed a 6.2% decline in measures of balance, 19.7% decline in aiming and catching, 15.8% decrease in manual dexterity and 18.1% deterioration in overall physical development since the norms for the assessment battery were last revised in 2007. A second screening test for signs of neuromotor immaturity indicated that 78% of the sample showed some signs of immaturity – an apparent increase of 30% – since findings were last reported using the same screening test in 2005.
It would be easy to dismiss these findings as tests throwing up false positive results in a relatively small sample, or, a screening test that has set the markers for normal development too high, if it were not for corroborative findings from a sample of more than 600 children across primary schools elsewhere in the United Kingdom, tested between 2017 and 2018. Based on the same screening test used in the 2005 report, findings indicate that between 79% and 82% of the sample showed some signs of immaturity in motor skills.
Both research projects have introduced daily movement programmes into the schools (Movement for Learning, Better Movers and Thinkers and the INPP Developmental Movement Programme for use in Schools). Both projects have found that neuromotor skills of children in the experimental groups have improved with intervention groups showing greater progress than comparison groups. One of the projects is still in progress with results being prepared for publication, but preliminary findings on the incidence of immature motor skills will be presented at an international conference in Madrid on the 12th of May 2018.
Why do motor skills matter?
Learning is not all in the head. It is also a physical activity which relies on control of balance to provide the foundation for postural control. Postural control supports not only coordination but also centres involved in the control of eye movements needed for stable visual perception and the ability to sit still. Each one of these motor related skills is involved in reading, writing, copying, catching a ball and the physical basis for attention. Immaturity in motor skills can act as a barrier to performance.
The primary “window” for developing motor skills is the first 5 – 7 years of life. These are the years when physical experience combined with social engagement act as the medium for developing the physical and social skills that will support learning and adaptation throughout life. While some children are ready to read and write at 4 years of age, others naturally need longer. Forcing children into sedentary activities and assessments of cognitive attainment before they have the physical skills in place to support them will not guarantee better outcomes later on. The Minister’s £10 million would be much better spent on supporting and assessing children’s physical and social literacy in the early years.
Experts are rightly sceptical of the findings from these projects, criticising them on the basis that not all have been published in peer reviewed journals, that the developmental norms set in the standardised test battery must need revising and the INPP screening tests rely too heavily on a theoretical construct – that the continued presence of primitive reflexes in school age children provide signposts or markers of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system. While all of these criticisms may be valid, focus on criticism results in a “blind eye” approach to the figures that indicate:
The same screening test is revealing an apparent increase in signs of immature motor skills over a 13 year period.
A standardised test battery is revealing a similar, if less acute, trend.
Adjusting the norms on an existing standardised assessment would not solve the problem. It would simply mask it.
Rather than continuing to deny or discredit the findings of these various projects, surely it is time for the sceptics to commission and carry out large scale independent research using the same and comparison assessment tools to verify or disprove the trend these independent investigations appear to be revealing. If there is a continuing decline in children’s physical readiness for learning this needs to be addressed as a priority in policy and educational practise.
 North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB), 2004. An evaluation of the pilot INPP movement Prepared for the NEELB by Brainbox Research Ltd. www.neelb.org.uk. Commissioned by the Department of Education, Northern Ireland.
 Goddard Blythe SA, 2005. Releasing educational potential through movement. A summary of individual studies carried out using the INPP test batters and developmental exercise programme for use in schools with children with special needs. Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432.
 Harte S, 2015. Physical development and National Curriculum Levels – the incidence of neuromotor immaturity (NMI) in London primary schools and the relationship between NMI and National Curriculum measures of achievement. Paper presented at The Child Development in Education Conference. London. October 2015.
 Duncombe R, Preedy P, 2017. Personal communication.
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