Why we must take back ownership of the EYFS

Thursday, February 7, 2019

While our early years curriculum is broad and far ranging, looking at developmentally appropriate practice from birth, we are rapidly losing this in the rush to assess and level, says Dr Sue Allingham.

As I write this update, I have an increasing sense of déjà vu. This is because the national news concerning developments in early childhood education has not moved forward. The same issues and concerns roll round and round. As I look back on my career my sense of déjà vu deepens.

Actually, there is a significant change that needs to acknowledged. One that begins to mitigate the sense of déjà vu and goes some way to bringing parallel universes together. The concerns and issues that have been apparently cyclical in the world of early childhood seem to be gaining more traction in the public arena. This has been a positive advantage of social media. We have so often felt that we are detached from the world of education and that no one is listening, that this phenomenon is powerful. But we must be careful with it. Although it is good news that discussions of early childhood education are no longer exclusive to the ‘echo chambers’ – a derogatory and patronising term used to ‘other’ our pedagogy – of early years forums, it is important to monitor the tone of discussions that take place across the internet.

It is so often perceived that the children we work with are somehow deficit models who come to us knowing nothing: not toilet trained, unable to feed themselves or to behave appropriately, and with very little language. I'm thinking about the ‘school ready’ agenda.

It is so often perceived that the children we work with are somehow defecit models who come to us knowing nothing: not toilet trained, unable to feed themselves or able to behave appropriately.

‘Why we mustn't ignore self-regulation’

An article from TES at the beginning of May reminded us of the impact made by the Ofsted report Bold Beginnings

‘Since the ill-conceived Bold Beginnings report from Ofsted, the early years community has fought against attempts to formalise EYFS and bring KS1 methods of teaching into the setting. In doing so, they have referred people to the research around aspects of development such as self-regulation. They have stressed that, developmentally, much of what some wish children at this age stage to do is beyond their capability. But, sadly, they have largely been ignored.’

This references my comments above about ‘othering’ and being in a parallel universe, but takes the idea of a ‘deficit model’ to another level. It's not just the children we work with who are somehow seen as lacking, it is the informed teachers whose knowledge is not seen as relevant.

The author of this article, Ann Mroz, ends with this statement –

‘When will we stop being so dismissive of early-years practitioners? They are providing the foundation for every other educational phase to build on. They may talk about play but their work is deadly serious. We ignore them at our peril.’ This is such an important statement.

What next for curriculum?

In an interesting piece for British Education Research Association (BERA) Dominic Wyse and Yana Manyukhina from UCL Institute of Education wrote –

‘People are talking about curriculum again. Not just literacy and maths, but the whole curriculum. What's more, there seems to be a real appetite for these discussions: organisations as diverse as Ofsted, the CBI, BERA, schools and university education departments, are thinking about curriculum. But what type of curriculum is best: “knowledge-based”, “skills-oriented”, or “learner-centred”’?

These conversations are important and, to avoid the parallel universe effect, it is vital that there are informed contributions from those in the early childhood education sector too. From all types of provision. With this in mind, it is good to see that a ‘learner centred’ curriculum is mentioned as we would recognise this as being the core of our pedagogy. However the authors go on to note –

‘Of considerable concern is the fact that the learner-centred curriculum model is not even a consideration in Ofsted's recent work on curriculum; had curriculum researchers in the UK been consulted, we doubt that this omission would have been made’.

This comment is interesting as it reflects how the early years have been omitted from important policy changing discussions. In this way there is often tinkering with a curriculum model that is not understood or, worse, completely misunderstood. Perhaps even wilfully so. For example, it is often assumed that there is no ‘curriculum’ in the early years, and many in our sector actively avoid using the word because it is so politically loaded now. But we must be active in this discussion and unite the universe of education.

The assessment-led and knowledge-based approach that has typified England has not been fit for purpose. Instead of knowledge, powerful or otherwise, it is time to focus more on empowering learners.

If we don't take part in these debates then we are open to criticism and being told that we don't ‘teach’, again part of the deficit model. I found this next update interesting in light of the curriculum debate.

Revise EYFS to improve science teaching, says academic

Freddie Whittaker, the author of this piece which appeared in Schools Week, outlines some research done in Greece that has shown that young children can understand scientific concepts. The work was done with five and six-year-olds, and it was found that –

‘… they were able to understand the concept of change in the state of water between gas, liquid and solid’.

As an experienced teacher, who is now privileged to visit settings around the country, this comment surprised me. This type of scientific questioning is the foundation of what we do in our work. The whole point of the Early Years Foundation Stage is that is not a ‘capped’ curriculum and our programmes of learning actively encourage the type of scientific and investigative thinking that enable children to understand such concepts. I once had a group of children who wanted to understand how water could make electricity as they had heard about dams.

The researcher behind this project summed up what often leads to the ‘deficit model’ of thinking –

‘Dr Maria Danos, from the University of Reading, who led the study, said schools “tend to underestimate the ability of young children to understand and grapple with scientific concepts, particularly abstract concepts.

“This study has shown young people do have the potential to understand abstract scientific concepts, but there needs to be a process for that learning.

“Children are naturally curious. They possess the skills and attributes that professional scientists need, but we need to nurture them in a more systematic way”’.

This tendency to underestimate the children is reinforced by the ‘school readiness’ idea that only allows for literacy and numeracy as being ‘ready’, and not being able to demonstrate the Characteristics of Effective Learning. Interesting to note the criticism of the Statutory Framework and how ‘weak’ it is around science subjects. The deputy chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said the findings showed there was ‘value in introducing simple scientific concepts in the early years’. They are, of course, already there. Despite the comment that the ‘Understanding the World’ section is ‘very poor’.

Comparing this update to the previous one is interesting and exemplifies different understandings of early childhood pedagogy.

This is how parallel universes are perpetuated.

The next update says it all.

‘Take back control’

In his article for Nursery World Michael Pettavel highlights how high quality learning experiences are so often missed as the curriculum becomes narrower and driven by assessment –

‘The danger in a narrow focus on assessing achievement and attainment is that it becomes an end in itself and the curriculum begins to narrow, just as it has in primary schools. Starting with the assessment framework and not the child is back to front and looks to what a child cannot do rather than what they can. Perhaps it is time to refresh our perspective and take back ownership of the Early Years Foundation Stage’?

Our curriculum is broad and far ranging looking at developmentally appropriate practice from birth, but we are rapidly losing this in the rush to assess and level.

Conclusion

I opened this update with a comment about how we've been here before. So much of what is happening – ‘baseline’, ‘assessment’, ‘narrowing curriculum’, ‘deficit models’ – is too familiar for those of us who have been in the sector a long time.

‘Take back control’ is something that we must do.

We are at a critical time now where such headlines as this are trending –

Exclusive: ‘How our behaviour crackdown will work’

DfE behaviour tsar Tom Bennett talks to TES about his new role leading a £10m government initiative

Schools backed to tackle bad behaviour

£10 million scheme to help teachers crack down on bad behaviour in the classroom

Worsening child poverty harms learning, say teachers

Somewhere in all of this the children have been forgotten and put in a parallel universe where the knowledge and opinions of their teachers and parents have come to mean nothing. This could result in –

Why pupils' and teachers' mental health are inextricably linked.

Links to articles

  • TES: Why we mustn't ignore self-regulation

    https://www.tes.com/magazine/article/why-we-mustnt-ignore-self-regulation

  • BERA: What next for curriculum?

    https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/what-next-for-curriculum

  • Schools Week: Revise EYFS to improve science teaching, says academic

    https://schoolsweek.co.uk/revise-eyfs-to-improve-science-teaching-says-academic/

  • Nursery World: Take back control

    https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/nursery-world/opinion/1167381/take-back-control

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