Pioneers: Plowden, Rumbold, Ball

Estelle Martin
Monday, March 1, 2021

We look at how the reports authored and championed by Sir Christopher Ball, Lady Bridget Plowden and Dame Angela Rumbold influenced education policy.

Children should be educated as individuals, according to Plowden.
Children should be educated as individuals, according to Plowden.

Key points

  • Lady Plowden, Dame Angela Rumbold and Sir Christopher Ball were authors of three of the most influential modern assessments of early education
  • Their work continues to be a source of inspiration, review and critique of the early learning culture and effective practice
  • Practitioners should familiarise themselves with the contents of the reports: Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning; Children and their Primary Schools; Starting With Quality: The Rumbold Report of the committee of inquiry into the quality of the educational experiences offered to 3-and 4-year olds


Note: This article was first published in the February 2008 issue of eye

The three advocates of early education discussed in this article represent different and significant reports commissioned at quite different times in recent history:

  • Children and their Primary Schools, better known as the Plowden report in 1967.
  • Starting With Quality, better known as the Rumbold report in 1990.
  • Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning, by Sir Christopher Ball in 1994.

Each advocate in their own distinctive way, and using different terms of reference, identified aspects of early learning that required a change in policy, and made similar recommendations for how to implement these changes into practice.

All of their findings are supported by research, both their own and that of others, and policy documents that all contribute to the development of early years services. Their research and reports can be critiqued and reviewed, and can be used to inform reflective practice in the early years.

Lady Bridget Plowden (1910– 2000)
Lady Plowden was born in England and educated at a range of schools, both in England and Ceylon. Plowden established a career in voluntary committee work and as a magistrate, and later established the charity VOLCUF, which provided support for young children within the voluntary sector. She also held positions as president of the Pre-school Play Groups Association and chair of the committee for the education of Gypsy and Traveller’s children.

Plowden was referred to as an educational reformer because of her devotion to improving education for all – she was especially concerned with children who experience social disadvantage and poor outcomes in the education system.

Lady Plowden’s biggest impact on early childhood education was in her role as chairperson of the national committee on Primary education, which became better known as Children and their Primary Schools. The report was published in 1967.

As chairperson she lead the work of the Central Advisory Council for Education in performing a comprehensive review of Primary Education in England. The Plowden report proved inspirational. The central tenet states: ‘At the heart of the educational process lies the child.’ The recommendations for change included: Educating children as ‘individuals’; and the prominence of play as the main vehicle for learning. The report also recommended providing free nursery education for all children and that children should start school in the September after their fifth birthday.

The approaches contained within the report have been termed child-centred and can be recognised in contemporary early years practice; the Plowden principles have not been fully implemented across primary education as coherently as recommended.

This is evident in terms of the age at which children start school, the type of provision for reception classes in primary schools, as well as the implementation of the National Curriculum.

Plowden emphasised the need for teaching and learning processes to become more child-centred with children’s interests and individual development as the focus – this will result in meaningful learning for the children. This was underpinned by Piaget’s theoretical stance regarding discovery learning and exploration through playful activities.

Primary practice was to include more individual and group work learning, which should have enabled the children to be more active and autonomous in their own learning. is approach can be viewed as constructivist, although at the time, it was referred to as ‘progressive’ education – as opposed to the ‘traditional’ model.

Key elements in the report

Diversity and equality; social inclusion; educational priority areas for children in disadvantaged communities to raise standards; child-centred curriculum framework (the child at the centre); learning through play.

The report has to be considered in its historical context of research into the education of primary school children. Teaching practices and action research about how young children learn most effectively has been generated by continued debates about child-centred learning and more formal types of experience, especially in primary levels, although this has a big influence on early years practice. Early years educators continue to articulate the importance of, and appropriate ways of, enabling children to have meaningful, successful learning experiences, and to share effective practice.

Dame Angela Rumbold (1932-)

Dame Angela Rumbold was born in 1932. She was educated in Cambridge and London. Although a qualified barrister, she chose to become a politician. In 1982, Rumbold was elected as a Member of Parliament, representing the Conservative party for the next 15 years, until 1997.

She served as Parliamentary Private Secretary of State for Transport, Under Secretary at the Department of Environment, Minister of State for Education and Deputy for the Secretary of State for Education. She was also Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1992. Rumbold has also held the position of chief executive for the charity National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital (NAWCH), and has served on several committees and held chair of governors’ roles at several schools.

Starting With Quality

Dame Rumbold is best known to practitioners as the author of the report Starting With Quality: e Rumbold Report of the committee of inquiry into the quality of the educational experiences offered to 3-and 4-year olds that has been a major influence on policy and provision for nursery children.

The inquiry was commissioned in 1989, during Rumbold’s term as Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (DES) – Rumbold chaired the committee of inquiry. The report proved innovative in terms of the comprehensive nature of the consultation and its multi-disciplinary aspects.

The implementation of both the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Children’s Act (1991) were influenced by Starting With Quality, and helped to support practitioners’ overall understanding – across all early years settings – that the education and quality of provision for the young children should, could and would be improved.

The report acknowledged the diversity and range of different provision available in the early years, respecting the multiplicity of roles and agencies that are involved with families and children in the UK. Its terms of reference included the content, continuity and progression in learning for children as they make the transition between settings, primary school and the National Curriculum. It also emphasised the central role of parents in their children’s education and care. The idea of a coherent policy between children’s services was also significant and informed by the research available.

Other aspects included: Approaches to learning and the importance of play; partnerships with parents; a curriculum for children under the age of five; observation and assessment, recording and reporting systems; monitoring and evaluation of provision (including integrated provision); education and training for adults working with children under the age of five; access to services and coordination of provision (including integrated provision).

Overall, the recommendations of the report targeted policy makers, providers and practitioners with a focus on the quality within, and between, services and agencies who work with young children.

Relevance for current policy and practice

We can see clear foundations for progression towards what we now know as the Every Child Matters policy and practice issues.

The report also considers international comparisons of provision for young children that informs policy makers and practitioners of alternative models, and of how quality experiences for young children are being developed. It also considers other approaches to children’s development and learning in public services.

The curriculum framework advocated by the Rumbold committee looked at ‘areas of experience and learning’. Foundation stage practitioners can reflect on how the curriculum framework has changed and evolved to become more inclusive and representative of child-centred approaches.

The following quote is taken from the Rumbold Children’s early learning is a distinct phase of report, which continues to be relevant for all policy makers, providers of services and practitioners:

‘The educator working with under fives must pay careful attention not just to the content of the child’s learning, but also to the way in which that learning is offered to and experienced by the child, and the role of all those involved in the process. Children are affected by the context in which learning takes place, the people involved in it and the values and beliefswhich are embedded in it.’ (1990, p9)

Sir Christopher Ball (1935-)

Sir Ball was educated at Oxford and progressed to become a lecturer in higher education at London University. He continues to be an educationalist who advocates life-long learning. Sir Ball promotes the development of a learning society where ‘education for all’ is accomplished. He has maintained a wide interest in education and has held multiple positions on advisory committees and research initiatives in development and training, including government commissions.

Sir Ball was formerly the director of learning for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) where he was responsible for an early learning project. This research was later published as Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning (1994), which has influenced and helped to shape early childhood policy in England as we currently know it.

The Start Right report was commissioned by the RSA; the co-director of the project alongside Sir Ball was Professor Kathy Sylva, who has been heavily involved in the EPPE research. The project considered a range of research and policy papers and constructed both an argument and a discussion of findings for the investment and expansion of early learning provision in the UK. The report proposed a number of policy components:

  • Good early education leads to immediate and lasting social and educational benefits for all children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • High quality provision requires the integration of care and education.
  • Unified responsibility for provision.
  • Universal entitlement to good early learning.

The report highlighted 17 statements, including:

Children's early learning is a distinct phase of education; the triangle of care for children, parents and professionals and the community as a whole in partnership; quality provision needs to have a system of monitoring good practice; political will so that ‘no child born after the year 2000 be deprived of the opportunity and support for effective early learning’.

The report builds on earlier work, such as the, Rumbold report and the NCB’s Investing In Children. Each recommendation is discussed with convincing arguments backed by research findings. The section by Sylva, The Impact of Early Learning on Children’s Later Development is particularly interesting and resonates with the more recent research from the EPPEY project about effective learning environments.

The Start Right report argues for integrated provision and for expansion of funded places for children five-years-old and under. Sir Ball is a strong advocate of continued learning and enabling parents to retrain and have economic independence through work – this is a central element of the report.

The challenge to the government at the time was to implement the findings and fund the progress. Overall, Sir Ball, with Sylva, makes a powerful argument for the importance of early learning in our society and this continues to be promoted and supported through Sir Ball’s writings and presentations. Early years educators can track the policy changes made since 1994, for example:

  • The National Childcare Strategy (1998), this includes the anti-poverty and Sure Start initiatives, which are funded through the strategy.
  • Early Excellence Centres/children’s centres.
  • The Children’s Act (2006).
  • Every Child Matters strategy with the five national outcomes for children.
  • The Early Years Foundation Stage (2007).

Reading list

Ball C (2004) Start Right: The Importance of Early Learning. RSA: London

Blenkin G, Kelly AV (eds) (1998) Early childhood education: a developmental curriculum. Paul Chapman: London

Central Advisory Council for Education (1967) Children and their Primary Schools. HMSO: London.

DES (1990) Starting With Quality. The Rumbold Report of the committee of inquiry into the quality of the educational experiences offered to 3-and 4-year olds. HMSO: London

Sylva K, Moss P (1992) Learning Before School. Briefings. National Commission on Education: London

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