News analysis: Putting children back into the heart of practice

Sue Allingham
Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Sue Allingham, author, trainer and consultant, discusses some of the latest news stories and headlines about the sector, noticing a sea change in the direction of travel for early childhood education and care.

Every month I review publications and websites to find key headlines to share in this article. As I have reviewed the news headlines this year, I have started to detect a slight sea change in thinking about what is, and is not, right for our youngest children.

The launch of the revised Statutory Framework in 2021 was at the eye of a perfect storm in early childhood education and care. We were already aware from the consultation that the result was not going to be a document the sector would necessarily be comfortable with. We were in the middle of a pandemic, which was having a major impact on settings and schools, and we were about to be required to start doing the new Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) with all children starting in Reception Classes. Another new initiative that very few people if any are happy with.

All of this has led to a really tricky period for early childhood education and care in England. As I write more change is on the horizon as a consultation on the Revised EYFS Statutory Frame has just been announced. We have had five years of turmoil with much tinkering round the edges of what we do, and this has resulted in a great deal of confusion with so many myths abounding. And an alarming trend to ignore developmentally informed pedagogy in favour of rigid timetables of phonics and maths, alongside dictated curriculum documents that determine what all the children will do at all times. This has been partly fuelled by a concern about a perceived ‘loss of learning’ caused by lockdown, so child development and wellbeing have gone out of the window and been replaced by an academic focus.

I have written much about this in the past so it is with interest that I note this headline:

DfE has forgotten about children and families in pursuit of standards

(https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/general/dfe-has-forgotten-about-children-and-families-pursuit-standards)

In this article, the former Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield talks about the need for the Department for Education (DfE) to reflect on what it is for, and whether it really is doing its best to give children the best start in life. She suggests that we learn a lesson from history –

‘… the demise of his Department for Children, Schools and Families, unceremoniously ditched by Michael Gove amid controversies around rebranding costs and imported designer chairs.

Renaming it as the Department for Education felt like a clear message from the new government: this department is here to improve schools and raise standards, the rest is a distraction.’

This renaming happened 13 years ago and made a very clear statement about the direction of travel that was intended. Longfield points out that this emphasis excludes so many children, by missing the challenges children and families face. A rigid focus on academic standards will not ultimately pay off –

‘This trajectory does not suggest we are heading towards the status of a world-class education system any time soon. The government's focus on raising overall school standards, particularly with regards to literacy, does deserve plaudits, but it has only taken us so far.’

As so many teachers tell me, tackling the big challenges facing children - many of which are preventing success in education and later life - requires a joined-up approach that goes beyond simply a Department for Education.

It is really good that this is beginning to be recognised, but we have a long way to go for this thinking to get to the centre of policy making.

What I have noticed this month is the number of articles that are now highlighting problems with the central messages.

Sure Start director says childcare reform is for UK economy not children

(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/may/28/sure-start-director-childcare-reform-uk-economy-children)

‘Naomi Eisenstadt, first programme lead, says there is lack of attention on what childcare is actually for.’

This word ‘childcare’ is not helpful in any policy context as it enables the policy-makers to skim over the education aspect. This is clear in this statement from Eisenstadt -

‘I think the government values childcare but it doesn't value children,’ she says. ‘There was nothing in the statement about children – it was completely about the economy. And that's a short-term view because these children will be the workforce in 15–20 years. I am very anxious about the lack of attention on what childcare is actually for.’

The constant tension between the idea that early years provision is for childcare, and that education does not figure in it, has led to the artificial split between what happens in schools and what happens across the rest of the sector. The fact that we have two different Ofsted frameworks – one that is used in early childhood settings that are not in schools, and the School Inspection Handbook that takes in Nursery and Reception provision in schools, promotes the concept that what happens in schools for the youngest children suddenly becomes academically driven. All of this provision has to work within the Statutory Framework so should be judged in the same way. This next headline resonated with me as it reminded me of the constant mantra that we hear from programmes and schemes that schools feel pressured into buying. Children are often told to ‘Keep up, not catch up’. So it is good to hear that this is now being questioned too.

‘Schools are killing curiosity’: why we need to stop telling children to shut up and learn

(https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jan/28/schools-killing-curiosity-learn)

This article opens with a lovely picture of a nursery school headteacher sitting in a cardboard box, next to a child who is also sitting in a box. The caption runs: ‘Matt Caldwell, head of Ilminster Avenue nursery school, Bristol, says the youngest children's creativity and conversational skills have increased since cardboard boxes and cans replaced toys.’ And the joy in the picture is real.

However, so many early years provisions in school are held back by timetables, planning and schemes that make adult led demands on time and thinking. Interestingly, this approach flies in the face of the statutory requirement to inform provision and practice through the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning. Children, too often, are required to sit for up to an hour at a time while being expected to listen to an adult telling them something. I thought this type of practice had been left behind long ago, as we have learnt so much more about listening skills and the physical and neurological development required to sit and listen effectively. Sadly, this type of practice has crept back as teachers feel under pressure to cover so much ‘teaching’ to the detriment of working with what children really want to know –

‘Children, full of questions about things that interest them, are learning not to ask them at school. Against a background of tests and targets, unscripted queries go mainly unanswered and learning opportunities are lost.’

A good point well made. So it is good to see another article that emphasises this -

Executive functions: what early years teachers need to know

(https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/early-years/executive-functions-what-early-years-teachers-need-know)

If we consistently expect children to sit and listen, then we are denying children the opportunity to develop what are called ‘executive functions’. Thus meaning that they are not having opportunities to use the Characteristics of Effective Learning –

‘These skills underlie the capacity to plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions, among others.’

(https://harvardcenter.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ExecutiveFunctionInfographic_FINAL.pdf)

Conclusion

It has been good to be able to find news items for this update that finally, hopefully, signal a sea change in the direction of travel for early childhood education and care. The emphasis on the unique child appears to be returning. The last item I am sharing in this update is a blog which summed up something that has been troubling me for several years – the use of staged interventions. The writer questions an approach that is always suggested as a universal method to be used with specific children.

The author has written two blogs pointing out the issues with a specific ‘intervention’ that is universally recommended -

Bucket time, positive intervention or ableist insistence on ‘curing’ autism?

(https://www.aperiontraining.co.uk/post/bucket-time-positive-intervention-or-ableist-insistence-on-curing-autism)

Let's connect – the alternative to ‘bucket time’

(https://www.aperiontraining.co.uk/post/let-s-connect-the-alternative-to-bucket-time)

‘Within early years, we follow the children's lead, we allow the children's interests to shine through, using this to engage, support, scaffold and develop learning, we become a curious play partner through connection and consideration, offering purposeful engagement, wonderful provocations within a safe space.

So why, with our neurodivergent don't we offer the same? Why are we insistent that their play type, their interests don't matter. They have to sit down opposite an adult, not being able to engage with resources, with the adult only bringing out another resource once they have given us “appropriate” eye contact. A session where they have to focus on the “leading adult and their agenda”?’

This extract says so much about so much more than ‘bucket time’, an adult-led activity/intervention that I have never been comfortable with, it speaks volumes about what is universally wrong in early childhood education. And challenges it. Hopefully, this trend of challenge continues as our children deserve better.

 

TOP MOST READ

Ofsted launches consultation on ‘significant changes’ to the complaints system

Ofsted has launched a consultation on ‘significant changes’ to the complaints system for early years settings and schools aimed at resolving complaints more quickly, and increasing transparency.

Children's minister promises to ‘look closely’ at top-slicing of early years funding

‘Top-slicing’ of early years funding was one of the issues facing the sector raised by children's minister Claire Coutinho in her speech to delegates at the National Day Nurseries Association's annual conference.

Government launches consultation on policy changes to the EYFS framework

The Department for Education's eight-week online consultation aims to ‘provide more flexibility and remove burdens’ within the EYFS framework.

Research finds almost a quarter of children from low-income backgrounds miss out on benefits of reading in their first year

New findings from children's reading charity BookTrust highlight the importance of investment in early years reading.

 

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