News analysis: Rejecting labels


Despite the increasing ‘top down’ pressure to impose literacy and maths standards on young children, it is important to remain focused on ‘the unique child’ and the creativity at its heart, argues Sue Allingham.

The more I read and reflect on the current situation in education as a whole, not just in the early years, the more I am concerned about the piecemeal approach being adopted at both a local and national level to how we are expected to teach and the children to learn.

In our work in early childhood education, we are increasingly made to feel that we are somehow inadequate, and that the children we teach are always deficit models.

This is a well-rehearsed argument, but it never seems to be resolved. My feeling is that a great deal of this is to do with the trend to label things – for example within the environment, what is taught and learnt, how things are done and what things look like. These ‘labels’ range from gimmicky to seemingly academic, but they all work from the premise that the youngest children are deficient in some way and that we are not yet effectively ‘teaching’ them what they need to fill the perceived ‘gap’.

The notions of deficiency and labelling run throughout all of the following items.

Priorities for child development

I received a flyer for the Westminster Education Forum conference ‘Priorities for supporting child development in the first years of life – improving children's well-being, literacy and communication skills and engaging with disadvantaged families'. The title sums up everything in one sentence but they then go on to make the following statement:

‘This conference will examine priorities and next steps for supporting child development in the first years of life.

Delegates will look at:

  • Funding – future arrangements and coordination of health services for children in the early stages of life
  • Access – the provision of free early education and childcare and ensuring it is accessed by disadvantaged families, and
  • Skills – the development of literacy and communication in the early years.’

All of these things are important, but if the subject is ‘priorities for supporting child development in the first years of life’ has the focus become skewed? While there is a strong focus on health and nutrition which is crucial, as is the emphasis on involving parents, I do wonder about the constant refrain of developing early literacy skills. While communication skills are vital, the current trend towards teaching phonics earlier and earlier as a universal panacea is not helpful and will become counterproductive if it hasn't already.

‘Next steps for child development policy’, the final item on the conference agenda leaves me wondering.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is currently recruiting for teams from early years settings to take part in research projects based in literacy and numeracy. There are two projects about maths and one about phonics. For ‘Reception staff aiming to improve children's early mathematical understanding; senior staff in early years settings to improve the maths skills and confidence of children’, and ‘Reception teachers in strategies designed to optimise phonics teaching and improve children's reading’. These projects are based on existing programmes that are already available for purchase and in use. Many settings plan their teaching with them.

‘In our work in early childhood education, we are increasingly made to feel that we are somehow inadequate, and that the children we teach are always deficit models.’

If we reflect on the previous item about the conference with its reference to child development and well-being in the first years of life, these projects feel like sticking plasters that are missing the actual need completely. What price ‘child development policy’?

One other project that the EEF is currently recruiting for is on ‘encouraging participation in learning activities beyond the normal school day to improve aspirations and attainment of primary pupils’.

This begs the question about the quality of what is achieved within the school day and suggests another sticking plaster approach to fix a problem rather than diagnosing the root cause of a perceived deficit.

The results

The result of too many of these approaches is that while children may go on to achieve high scores, they still lack ‘foundation for learning’ as one nursery head warns in a TES article.

As we are being directed towards a curriculum of literacy and maths, it is inevitably the foundation subjects that are getting lost. But we have a statutory duty to develop the ‘unique child’ and creativity is part of this. Professor Bill Lucas who co-chairs the strategic advisory group for the PISA 2021 creative thinking tests was quoted in another recent TES article on the Government's plans to opt out of the new PISA creative test as saying:

‘If you opt into creative thinking, there is the thinking you are perhaps giving a signal that you don't value standards in English, maths and science as much, because you are somehow potentially aligning yourself with a view of the purpose of education that is beyond the basics of the core subjects…

‘This has become an entirely false binary position. It's very unhelpful. There is a growing amount of research showing that if you embed creativity rigorously, standards in other subjects also go up.’

Reflecting on this, what would your answer be to the following question asked by Kattie Hiatt in Teach Early Years –’ Is Maths Mastery Right for the EYFS’?

We must rethink…

The many sticking plasters and labelling leads to ‘heads being torn between Ofsted demands and best practice’ (TES).

It is time to stop labelling children and seeing deficiencies. If we really want to make a difference then we must rethink. I recommend reading the blog ‘Estates’ by Anita Kerwin-Nye (see link in box).

Is it any wonder that there seems to be a ‘Global epidemic’ of childhood inactivity’?

According to this BBC article, four in five 11–17-year-olds around the world are not taking enough physical exercise, and my own work over the years has shown me that few children in the early years experience the 180 minutes a day of energetic physical activity that is recommended by the Chief Medical Officer. This cannot happen in the current climate. This brings us back to ponder about these ‘next steps for child development policy’. The last word is from the American group Defending Early Years, which shows that we are not alone in our struggle:

‘Every day we hear more teachers speak out and demand policymakers listen to the experts, read the research, and put the best interest of the child at the centre of policies.

What are we up against?

I wish I could say the struggle was over, and we won the fight, but the truth is we still have much work to do. We are up a against misguided belief that low-income children of colour need more academic instruction at an early age to close the so-called achievement gap. We are up against the insistence that young children must spend their days learning to be obedient and conform to unrealistic expectations so they may one day be “college-and-career ready”’.

This is happening on the other side of the world, and yet it is all too familiar.



Links to articles

  • Westminster Education Forum: Priorities for supporting child development in the first years of life - improving children's wellbeing, literacy and communication skills, and engaging with disadvantaged families – bit.ly/2RyWtvc

  • Education Endowment Foundation: Projects and Evaluations – bit.ly/2YtY5aM

  • TES: Nursery head says EYFS pressure to show progress means children may achieve high scores but still lack ‘foundations for learning’ – bit.ly/344GmYA

  • TES: Exclusive: England opts out of new Pisa creativity test – bit.ly/36lsM4R

  • Teach Early Years: Is Maths Mastery Right for the EYFS? – bit.ly/2RBTPVh

  • TES: ‘Heads torn between Ofsted demands and best practice’ – bit.ly/2LyQYc4

  • Anita Kerwin-Nye: Estates – bit.ly/2PuzbDJ

  • BBC: ‘Global epidemic’ of childhood inactivity – bbc.in/2P3ODrK

  • Defending the Early Years: Reflections on the Fight to Protect Childhood: What Have We Done? Where Are We Going? What Are We Up Against? – bit.ly/2Rvumgh

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