Analysis: View change through a lens

Hardly a day seems to pass without another new idea or proposed initiative affecting the early years. But proposed changes must be filtered through the professional lens of what, why how?

As I write there is still plenty being discussed about the draft Ofsted Education Inspection Frameworks, and concerns are coming thick and fast. It is absolutely right and proper that we discuss concerns and and refine our own ideas.

As this year has progressed, it feels increasingly as if we are sticking our fingers in a hole in the dam of central thinking and requirements in an effort to stop the great surge pouring through as the whole thing cracks and bursts. There seems to have been a surge of initiatives announced that will have an impact on our work.
It is feeling as if hardly a day goes by without another new idea, or comment, being made about something in early childhood education, and what we should do about it and how it must change. There is nothing wrong with change. However, change that is enforced and not negotiated through informed discussion with experts in their field is doomed to fail.

While it is good, that early years education is constantly highlighted, it is important to read carefully and view through these lenses: what, why and how? These questions are our ‘dam’.

It seems more and more holes are appearing in the dam that holds back the tides of policy, initiatives and guidance. This is because the tides are coming so fast at the moment; we can hardly draw breath and filter our practice through. We are running out of fingers, but we must hold on.

Children ‘failed in first 1,000 days’, say MPs
This BBC headline is alarming, but what does it mean?

We are already familiar with the expression the ‘first thousand days’ as it is often used, but perhaps not so well understood. Unicef defines it as:

'The first 1,000 days of life – the time spanning roughly between conception and one’s second birthday – is a unique period of opportunity when the foundations
of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established’.

While we recognise this important stage, how often is it actually understood, taken seriously and used to inform the work that is done within the EYFS? This news item shares the Health and Social Care Committee findings that there is a need for more funding for support for families and children after the age of two-and-a-half. THe closure of children’s centres has meant that many families are now vulnerable.

However the article then goes on to make the link to ‘school readiness’. A previous BBC article from September 2017 is referred to –

Too many new pupils not school ready, say head teachers
‘Many children are not ready to start school when they first enter a classroom, according to a survey of head teachers’. This time we are told that ‘Nearly a third of children are not “school ready” by the time they reach five, because they have not developed the necessary skills and behaviours’. For me the term ‘school readiness’ fits into my category of ‘weasel words’ in that it is in common usage, but means very different things to different people.

In this article it is suggested that children have ‘not developed the necessary skills and behaviours’ to start school. Bearing in mind that many children now start school when they are two, I sometimes wonder whether all involved have the ‘necessary skills and behaviours’, including understanding the sensitive periods of brain development, and how all children are unique. Meaning that ‘ages’ and ‘stages’ are not necessarily the same thing.

This focus is vital for the what, why and how –
• What do we understand about child development and neuroscience?
• What do we really need in place to support families?
• Why is this knowledge and support important?
• How do we move forward with developmentally appropriate pedagogy in the face of so many ‘weasel words’ that threaten the dam?

An intriguing new initiative is outlined in the next news item.

Disadvantaged families to benefit from free early learning apps’
In February Damian Hinds, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that –  ‘Parents will benefit from interactive learning tools and text message tips to support children’s early language and literacy at home, as part of a society-wide push to make sure children start school ready to learn’.

Families from disadvantaged backgrounds will be given free access to some of the best children’s educational apps for smart phones and tablets.

Having just reflected on the ‘First thousand Days’, this is an interesting development. Is an ‘early learning app’ ever going to replace the human support and contact provided by children’s centres? The problem with this idea is conflated by the use of more ‘weasel words’ in how it was reported. For example, the headline in e Guardian read – ‘Poorer families to get text messages in trial to support early learning’. Words such as ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘poorer’ are labels that are problematic, and should not be con ated.

Money and ‘disadvantage’ are not mutually exclusive. But it is often used as a measure – ‘It is one of a number of trials being launched by the DfE aimed at supporting the early educational development of disadvantaged children who, on average, are four months behind their wealthier peers by the age of five. By the time they sit their GCSEs, their overall attainment lags by 19 months’. The acknowledgement of the home learning environment as important is not to be underestimated, but making assumptions is not helpful.

I am interested to see how this initiative develops, and how the ‘apps’ will be chosen. It is good to know that a panel has been formed to make the decisions,
and that Professor Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield will be chairing it. ere will at least be some informed thinking underpinning the initiative. How do the three lenses apply here? What will the effect of these ‘apps’ be? Why might they have an impact on what happens in our settings? All of which leads neatly to perhaps the main part of the update this month.

‘Testing of under- fives goes ahead despite teaching union objections’ (The Guardian)
This was announced towards the end of February and has been met with almost universal shock from the sector. Over the years I have often written about ‘baseline assessment’, and was involved in a consultation group when the first incarnation of the Foundation Stage Profile was launched.

Since then we have been through one attempt to reinstate these when three tenders were accepted to be trialled as ‘baselines’ (Reception baseline: criteria for potential assessments, Standards and Testing Agency, 2014). e result of this was that there was a huge take up of the observation based assessment process as it was in tune with what is already the practice for ‘on entry’ assessments.

Because the results of this trial were not what was required centrally, in that the data was incompatible because it was from different types of assessment, the idea was scrapped. But now it’s back.

Last September a small number of schools were asked to trial the assessment and feedback. is feedback has not been published, although anecdotal evidence suggests that it was not a universal success. All we do know is that – ‘Plans to broaden baseline beyond maths and literacy dropped’. (TES)

TES journalist Helen Ward writes – ‘Plans to include tests of how well children can persist with a task have been dropped from the baseline assessment following trials.

‘A document published today by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) reveals that “self-regulation” will not be assessed by the tasks undertaken by 4-and five-year-old children as part of the baseline assessments.

‘Instead, the baseline assessment will consist solely of mathematics tasks and literacy, communication and language tasks, while self- regulation will be included in a reformed EYFS Profile’.

Schools are now being asked to ‘volunteer’ to pilot the assessment in September. At first it seemed as though this was to be a small group again. But all schools have been invited. A great deal is now being shared and discussed on social media. It is no surprise that many people are not happy, and their schools will not accept the invitation to volunteer.

I recommend that you watch the YouTube video distributed by the DfE and read as much as you can about this initiative as it is set to be part of what we do in the future.

I opened this update with a discussion about the ‘first thousand days’, and ended with the news about ‘baseline assessment’. These two things are inextricably linked because the introduction of this assessment will probably see more ‘top down’ pressure on settings to ‘prepare’ children for the test. There also may well be publications and ‘apps’ promoted that are about practising for the ‘baseline’. It is clear where the focuses are, so it is up to us to keep a check on the dam of appropriate early pedagogy, so that it doesn’t burst allowing the flood of initiatives to surge
over us without time to be


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