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The state of education is in a maelstrom, and children, educators and families with it.
Not only the terminologies, but the organisation, habits and environments are also shaped by this discourse. England has one of the poorest minimal standards for educational environments in Europe – if knowledge transfer is the chief definer of desirable education then smaller spaces are adequate – children need to be uniform, passive, obedient and receptive. Programmes of rote-learning are commercial and are pushed as 'effective' and 'efficient.' The situation is diagnosed by many – Professor Peter Moss, Sir Ken Robinson and increasingly parents who have withdrawn their children from school.
We know that learners are not passive receptors. Children are born lively, curious, dynamic, sociable, expectant, creative – in Professor Colwyn Trevarthen's words 'humans (children) are born seeking relationship.' It follows that the education we construct, with the tools of time, organisation, space, professionalism should support this basic human zest, not constrain from the narrowing external concerns about 'upskilling tomorrow's workforce.' But it is a construct – and the lived reality of schools and early childhood centres is of course very nuanced, with many heads, staff groups, managers, committed to 'getting it right'. But it remains a muddle, and it is draining the natural energies of children, and of educators, and is a worry to many parents.
- What are ways in which we can resource and support children in enlivening their curiosity, confidence, daringness, absorption, questioning, exhilaration?
- What are ways we can find to bring these children together to discuss, agree and disagree? To engage in significant learning groups, delving into important ideas, experience and construction of knowledge?
- What are ways in which we can enable their sociable autonomy and rightful importance as citizens?
This is the aim of our summer series 'Learning to Live Well Together' of six internationally-renowned contributors, which begins on 6th July (we also have a complementary introductory session on the 29th June.)
What are our policymakers interested in?
As evidenced here, it seems to be still more tallying-up, rather than actual attention to children's broad potential. Dr. Chris Merrick, early years educator, advisor, consultant, and Wendy Scott , ex-headteacher, Surestart national officer give their perspectives following recent UK government announcements on 'children's catch-up.'
The pandemic has created huge turbulence and uncertainty in the world. Whilst responding to the impact that this has had on children, early years settings are being asked to implement a new statutory document from September 2021. At a time like this we should be taking time to make sure our systems and ways of supporting children and their parents are conducive to better lives, rather than defining new curricular goals. Instead the focus seems to be on measuring and intervening – a deficit model, rectifying notional deficiency.
Just how early the government's focus on assessment and testing begins was brought home to me last week.
For the last few months, we have had our grandson and his parents staying with us. During this time he turned two, and his parents were sent questionnaires to fill in for his two-year-old's assessment. There were two questionnaires, one for 24 months, the other for 27 months. A quick look through seemed to us to indicate he was doing fine for his age, but there needed to be answers to the 31 questions for 24months and 41 questions for 27 months, so we found ourselves in conversation with him counting the length of his sentences so that we could record examples, asking him to jump and watching closely to see whether he moved forward three inches when he performed etc etc. It was a real-life example of what assessments based on observation against pre-determined criteria can do:decontextualising learning - we were testing our two-year-old!
In the new Early Years Foundation Stage and the supporting material that has sprung up around it, there is a move away from tick lists towards 'professional knowledge of children'; however, this professional knowledge is still rooted in a developmental paradigm and is based on a 'clear understanding of children's developmental trajectories.' It is not universallyconsidered 'clear' at all; the concept and details are highly contestable in their truthfulness and usefulness to supporting children's learning. Nevertheless, policy seems wedded to the concept of measuring children against age-related criteria and expectations. For instance, the new Development Matters (2020) divides what children should be learning into three stages and suggests 'checkpoints' which 'can help you to notice whether a child is in danger of falling behind.' Information about milestones rooted in a 'progression curriculum' built around curricular goals is readily available, whilst the new Birth to Five Matters document resolutely retains the ages and stages model of the original document – albeit now tracked against six levels.
Measuring children has become an obsession and to make matters worse, in the pandemic, discussions of 'lost learning' abound. We are bombarded by the need for 'catch-up' interventions such as the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme (NELI) supported by government funding. Indications are that this adds three months to the language performance of children taking part in the interventions. Introduced in Reception in 2020 this is being offered for roll-out nursery during 2021 to address the deficits identified in children who have missed out on provision during the pandemic. Whilst the benefits may be tangible, is it what children need at this time?An article by Georgina Trevor and Amanda Ince in the Spring 2021 Early Education Journal highlights some of the issues: 'in order to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, and its effect on young children, the desire to revert to measurable outcomes to fill so-called gaps in children's knowledge must be avoided.' They argue that, especially in the current context, it is essential that children have access to a 'creative curriculum with freedom and support to play without limitations of an imposed curriculum.' They refer to Carlina Rinaldi's view of education as a constant relational reciprocity between those who educate and those who are educated (Rinaldi, 2006) and I am reminded of a comment made by Carlina at a conference, in which she told us to trust the children.
We need now to step back, trust the children and see their competencies and capabilities, give them time, and work with them and their families to find their way through current pressures. The last thing children need is for educational centres to revert to intensive intervention and measurement, pandemic or no pandemic!
Trevor, G.and Ince, A., Early Education Journal, Spring 2021, "The need for a transformative and contextual early years curriculum"
DfE, (2020) Development Matters
Birth to Five Matters (2021)
Carla Rinaldi (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia, Routledge
The resignation last week of Sir Kevan Collins from his role as Education Recovery Commissioner in the light of the inadequate level of additional funding for schools and early years settings offered by the Treasury reminds me of the statement made by Anne Longfield, when she retired as Children's Commissioner earlier this year. She expressed her frustration that this government is just not interested in the kind of joined-up thinking that is so desperately needed: "during the past ten years, governments have focussed on school improvement targets without noticing that the outcomes for children attending these schools are, overall, getting worse. The Treasury … uses siloed thinking to count the costs and the benefits, which I believe consistently discriminates against children and families. What all this shows is an institutional bias against children."
Ministers talk glibly about levelling up, but do not understand the vital necessity of support for families, and the investment in children's welfare and wellbeing as well as their schooling, that will result in long term savings in grief and frustration in addition to money. It will be a tragedy if the opportunity is missed for a radical re-think on meaningful levelling up, and a commitment to improve the life chances of all children.
For Anne Longford this implies "a year of opportunity … enabling every child, from whatever background, not just to learn in the classroom, but also to develop their own interests at weekends and in the holidays. Finding joy in finding out, with confidence and resilience by forging their own paths. [We need to become] passionate about making sure that we don't define children by what's happened during this year: we define ourselves by what we offer to children. [We need] a "Covid covenant" from us to our children that takes children out of boxes marked 'problem' and to consider the opportunities they each have."
We define ourselves by what we offer to children. Words to act on.
Anne Longfield, in her parting statement as Children's Commissioner, says that the Prime Minister and officials should be taking the lead. Sadly the evidence continues to be that they cannot and willnot. Educators, parents, and all advocates for children's rights, wellbeing and potential, however can - despite Westminster discouragements. And there are politicians who also care more, and want to help create a different and open-minded environment for children's learning.
In preparing for our summer 2021 discussion series for educators and parents 'Learning to Live Well Together' I am hugely encouraged by statements from educator panel participants such as "Our school motto is 'Explore Dream Discover', and 'in our centres we have bolted the doors against conveyor-belt learning.'
We need to boldly go where Westminster declines to tread.
Sightlines Initiative Network member Gillian Reece-Jones has been reflecting on a recent positive encounter with parliamentarians, recounts that they were open to learning from the profession, and invites us all to connect more with politicians.
Like many of you these days, I seem to be continually accosted by emails,usually from the DFE, to respond to consultations on prospective changes to policy on what is inevitably called these days 'the early years sector'. I usually sigh and mutter 'lip service ' and 'waste of time', then dutifully compose a piece that advocates my long held principles of early education, which even as I press 'send' I feel is bound to be left unopened and unread.
Initially I had the same thoughts when I was invited to attend an APPG meeting (All Party Parliamentary Group on Childcare and Education) last week. The intention of the Zoom meeting was for representatives from early years to brief MP's and members of the House of Lords on the viability of the 'early years sector' and the flyer didn't sound too appealing and frankly not my usual cup of tea.
"With the early years and childcare sector integral to the national economy and society, providing vital services to workers across the country and high-quality early years education, providers have called for this APPG session to convey deep concern that unless action is taken to protect the sector, long-term damage to economic recovery and future economic growth will be stifled, as well as a permanent scarring of those vulnerable children who most depend on high-quality early years education."
As you can see from my italics, early education and the needs of vulnerable children seemed to be very much an afterthought and the central discussions would be around the child as a' commodity: 'human capital being educated and trained for the economic needs of the future.
I would normally have deleted immediately but I am in the latter stages of writing up a Master's dissertation on 'school readiness' from a practitioner's perspective and the human capital theory has appeared in many of the academic papers I have been using so thinking I might be able to use the discussion in a paragraph or two,I accepted the invite to attend and joined the Zoom.
As we have all found in recent months, Zoom calls are difficult, especially with large numbers but apart from the fact we only saw the Chair of the APPG ,Steve Brine MP, and the three invited speakers and only heard from them and the Parliamentarians, the ongoing text chat from those like me attending in the background illuminated and brought the meeting to life.
Steve Brine in his introduction stated that he had already spoken to Rishi Sunak about the importance of early years to the economy and that there needed to be a full review on childcare and early years education. The APPG were petitioning for a debate in Parliament where they would seek All Party support for a review.
Helen Donohoe, policy advisor from Pacey, talked about early years requiring a long-term strategy for direct funding and that the current Pupil Premium system requiring parental application, was over complicated and time consuming for settings to administer.
She also stated that any review should revisit recruitment; by improving the perception of working with young children, with a recognised career and pay structure would create a profession that was aspirational and attractive to a young and diverse workforce. Level Three staff and above are leaving the profession in droves year on year. She also indicated that the needs of parents and how they are supported particularly after COVID-19 needs to be urgently addressed.
The committee members of APPG asked lots of questions about the current pay rates and the qualifications and these were answered by Helen but also by those on the ongoing text chat.
Julian Grenier, Head Teacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, was the next speaker and obviously in agreement with Helen. He discussed the priorities for a 'meaningful review'and suggested a re-visit to the Nutbrown Review to implement those recommendations and stated that 'graduate leadership requires a qualification and career framework and public funding requires clear processes and defined outcomes'. His ten-minute section was very cleverly constructed as he put up simple slides with the front page of the Nutbrown Review and the EPPSE 3-16+ report along with pictures of children from his nursery. This was for the APPG committee to take note of for further reading whilst ensuring their thoughts were very child-centred.
Julian also talked about the importance of community and how funding at the grassroots level is so important to addressing the issues and needs in areas of high disadvantage .There were lots of questions from APPG members and one was on 'school readiness.' Julian directed them to read the UNICEF document 'School readiness and transitions' which not only asks 'is the child ready for school' but also 'is the school ready for the child' and 'is the community ready to support them?'
This created a lot of interest from the MPs and the in-text chat discussed organising, leading, and funding early years settings at the local community level and how that might be achieved. I could feel a small chink of possibility at that point.
Julian also highlighted that the 30-hour funding formula is propelling the 'Matthew Effect' i.e.'the rich get richer, the poor get poorer' and that nurseries in disadvantaged areas have the least funding and employ the least qualified staff.
He then posed a question for members of the APPG to reflect on.
What is childcare and early education for? Is it: 1) childcare for working parents? 2)Early education for young children? Or 3) Promoting more equal life-chances?
There was discussion about the DfE and the civil service within it and how unresponsive it is to MPs questions which I thought begged the question if they don't listen to you how can we expect them to listen to us!
The third speaker was for me a disappointment. An American, Dr Jenna a paediatrician, launched into her work on human investment in America(It was the longitudinal High Scope study) and of course mentioned her 'award winning book'. I think the turn off for me and many others was the neuroscientific explanations for unlocking the potential of babies learning. It was all delivered so quickly even I only caught half of it.
After further discussions when the APPG members were asking lots of questions or responding to items in the chat, the meeting finished, all wrapped up in an hour.
Was it useful?Yes, I think was. Would I attend again?Yes, I would.
The APPG are an informal back bench committee from the Commons and House of Lords and as a committee have no formal powers as a Select Committee has. However they all sit in their respective House and by being in dialogue directly with people from the early years community on a regular basis surely they must be able speak with a clearer understanding on the issues we all currently face? The MPs attending were clearly impressed by the degree of professionalism amongst the educator participants and became very open to supporting the re-framing of education from a value-led, professional starting point.
The early years community is fragmented by all the different types of settings and funding, i.e. PVI or grant maintained and of course by the different pedagogies (those 'alternative narratives') we embrace in our principles and practice. These are all reflected in the ever increasing number of 'bodies' representing specific areas of early years and whilst I know they are extremely supportive to their membership in offering training and network opportunities they do rather keep us all separated.
We need far more opportunities to work in a pluralist way on the issues that affect us all, and not only dialogue together but with those with the influence and opportunity to make changes for the better. The 'More Than a Score' group in which Sightlines Initiative participates, are doing this to great effect, and the new Early Years Coalition is a great prospect.
So instead of feeling as a community that we have to shoehorn our pedagogy into an ever tighter space and be compliant/resistant to the constant imposition of policy and inspection on our practice let us instead start ever so slowly to take back control. Let us reach out to Montessori, Froebel, Pikler and Steiner and other colleagues who are already finding common ground to confront the dominant discourse which currently ignores us. Let us ensure that when bodies engage on 'behalf ' of early years we are represented and have a place at the table too.
Finally let's use the democratic rights we all have to participate with groups like the APPG, but also to answer those calls for evidence from the Education Select Committee who regularly call the DfE and Ofsted to attend and account for their actions relating to early years (check out the Parliament website) as well as those from the DfE.
Years ago, at a Sightlines Initiative Conference, Peter Moss called us 'early years guerrillas': well the time for subterfuge is over.We need to come out from cover and engage.
So for 2021 the words I will try to live by are 'dialogue ', 'courage' and 'patience' …what are yours?
Gillian Reece-Jones is an early years educator, was a governor of single primary academy which she led as Chair into a MAT co-created with four other schools. Currently she is working full time to complete a Masters in Early Childhood before deciding whether to continue with academia and (when Covid allows) continue to work with parents and children under two.