A PIONEERING headteacher is calling for youngsters to start nursery school at the age of two.

Ruth Dean, head of Johnson Fold Primary School, told education leaders across the region that admitting two-year-olds into her school's nursery has had a major positive impact on their development.

She spoke at a summit at the Macron Stadium, where Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham singled out Johnson Fold as an example of how schools can ensure more children are ready to learn.

In 2008, the school — which serves an area which sits in the top five per cent of national deprivation — had no children who came into nursery in line with national expectations.

But last year 74 per cent were assessed as having a good level of development.

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Mrs Dean said: "We have a really good relationship with our parents. They come to us when they are in crisis, whether it be domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, debt or a breakdown in their relationships.

"We have the teabags and tissues ready and we listen, we signpost them to services who can help or offer advice where we can.

"It did not just happen straight away, or with a magic wand, it was through trial and error, a lot of teabags and tissues."

She explained: "The staff who came to deliver the sessions on parenting and pre-schooling were lovely, but our parents just did not want to engage, especially when postcodes and details about benefits were asked about, suspicions grew."

Instead the school put itself at the centre of the community, taking over the running of a satellite children's centre at the school, building relationships with the parents and community and bringing in specialist help.

They started to admit two-year-olds in nursery and identified 'barriers to learning' and aimed to remove them, working with specialists.

Figures released this week by the Department for Education showed last year 32.5 per cent of children in Greater Manchester started school not ready to learn.

In Bolton that figure stood at 35.4 per cent — with 64.6 per cent reaching the expected development. This is a huge improvement when on 2012/13 when only 47.6 per cent were school ready.

Children are said to be school-ready after reaching the expected level in communication and language, physical development, personal, social and emotional development, literacy, and mathematics.

The two-year-old provision scheme, which began in 2014, is currently only open to disadvantaged children, but Mrs Dean would be keen to expand the programme in the future.

She said: "It is definitely something we would like to open to more kids.

"It is working for our children and we have seen the impact it has had on them being ready to learn when they finish reception.

"Unfortunately, it can be a bit of a hassle for parents to go through the eligibility check for two-year-old provision at the moment, so that process needs sorting out."

Mr Burnham said: "If we listen to people like Ruth at Johnson Fold if we can see the changes she has brought about at her school, then we empower others to do the same, then we will get the figure down."

Moorgate Primary and St Mary's (Deane) CE Primary are among the other schools in Bolton to offer provision for two-year-olds.

Cllr Linda Thomas, deputy leader of the council, said: "Bolton was an early adopter of the Early Years Delivery Model and we carried out a pilot in the Oxford Grove area in 2014 to improve school readiness. The emphasis is on working more closely with other practitioners, including health visitors, schools, early years settings and children’s centres, as well as with families themselves to improve children’s development, interaction and communication skills.

"The redesigned Start Well Service is fully aligned to this model and we are rolling out the programme, in partnership with health providers, throughout the borough over the next 12 months. We have already made considerable progress in improving children’s school readiness and are committed to continuing the good work together with our partners to ensure our young people get the best start in life."

Mrs Dean added: "The work that is done to get our youngest children school ready is replicated around school and ensure the children’s outcomes are sustainable. We can see this already in our Key Stage Two outcomes which are above national averages this year.

"It is the role of all our staff to develop relations and trust with parents and the community.

"We have future plans in extending our work in supporting parents of children 0-2 and looking more closely at transition to high school."