White-haired radicalism and the evidence-free administration: The Evernote Files

Does anyone else use Evernote, the online note keeping system? I discovered it about nine months ago, when, shiny new laptop in hand, I needed a way of keeping track of research papers, journalism links, and blog posts that were relevant to my fields of interest. Now I use it for all sorts of things; urgent to do lists, drafting articles and blog posts, even jottings for the book I hope to one day write. Of late, I have two ‘notebooks’ within my Evernote file that are overflowing with content. One is called ‘Childcare’ the other, simply, ‘Gove’. As a serial tweeter and blog reader, I have found myself encountering a plethora of well-written, well-informed pieces on these two topics, and wanting to remember them, I copy and paste the web links over, and thus a library of opinion has formed.

During my eleven years inspecting Early Years, first for Ofsted, then for Tribal, I often found myself saying to obviously nervous staff, “Hey, it’s OK, we’re on the same side. You want what is best for kids, I want what is best for kids.” I always tried my hardest to help providers understand that, though I wore that badge around my neck, I wasn’t out to bring them down, rather, to work with them. Now, alongside this brand new consultancy, I’m a pre-school committee chair, and have already been asked to be on the board of governors for the school my daughter will be attending come this September. And I continue to feel the same, that all in the field of early years and education should be somehow working together to bring about ‘the cycle of continuous improvement’ our children so heartily deserve.

More recently, I have found myself blogging about white-haired radicalism (a phenomenon whereby influence for the good is achieved precisely because those speaking, while in opposition, do some from an authoritative knowledge-base)and my disdain for what is happening at the Department for Education. I’m alarmed by the sweeping changes that Liz Truss would like to introduce to the everyday workings of childcare in England. I’m shocked that someone so high up in government as Michael Gove can ride rough-shod over a mountain of intelligent arguments that challenge his view of schools and the national curriculum. In short, I don’t feel like I am on the DfE’s side, or, more importantly, that they are on the side of children.

I know I am not alone in my feelings, as my Evernote files attest. A swathe of commentators more informed and more eloquent than I are pushing hard against what they see as the prioritising of economics over family life. Liz Truss has visited a grand total of six early years settings in order to formulate her drastic proposals to change the ratios, the training, and the regulation of registered provision. She criticises the manner in which children are currently cared for, and demonstrates an alarming lack of understanding about how children learn. She bases her plans on models borrowed from overseas, even though those models are not really working for the children in those countries she holds up as exemplary. Ultimately her goal is to make childcare more affordable for families. A laudable aspiration, certainly. But everyone in the industry knows that her strategies for achieving this will not work as she expects them to.

Her senior colleague fairs even worse as I re-read the saved articles and posts in my file. The ever-erudite Michael Rosen calls Gove’s the ‘evidence-free administration’ via twitter. The Minister for Education enlists the help of educationalists and academics, then dismisses them as ‘The Blob’  when they offer constructive feedback on his national curriculum proposals. Funny then, that these ‘Enemies of Promise’ (his words) are supported by organisations as diverse as the CBI, the Royal Historical Society and the Design and Technology Academy, in their unpicking of the content of his curriculum consultations. As these arguments rumble publicly on, a more sinister game is played by the Twitter account @toryeducation, its anonymous author, thought to be someone close to Gove, spitting out venomous attacks on anyone who questions the Minister’s approach. He bangs on and on about the wonders of academies while allowing unqualified teachers to work in them.He pays advisors thousands of pounds a day when schools are stretched and pockets of funding are taken away. He wages irrelevant battles against the language used by Labour during their administration, while our teachers become ever more embittered, disillusioned, and devoid of morale.

They aren’t the most upbeat curriculum vitaes you’ve ever read, are they? And more than enough provocation to galvanise a generation of informed professionals across both Early Years and Education into concerted action. But before we get out our placards and take to the streets, let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page.

What do our children need from the adults charged with caring for them? Two seminal studies, EPPE (1994) and the Cambridge Primary Review (2009) combine well to answer this question for us. EPPE states that it is the quality of pre-school experience that determines whether it adds to, or detracts from, the life of a child; high quality provision will make a positive contribution to their learning journey, and such quality is determined by high ratios of interested, knowledgeable adults. The CPR takes in an enormous amount of worldwide research about how young children learn, and confirms the finding of EPPE that play based environments, with high ratios of adults who understand the value of child led learning, is what makes for the best outcomes. However, while EPPE did get to influence policy during the Blair administration, it is a continuing sadness to me that the CPR was so readily dismissed by the Cameron government. Similarly, Frank Field’s intelligent suggestions for changing the tax and benefits system to better support families with very young children are now also dead in the water.

Nevertheless, those of us familiar with this body of research evidence, and indeed, the work of Professor Cathy Nutbrown, and others like her know what is required, when it comes to engaging the minds of young learners. We know that children learn well in the outdoors. We know that progress with learning is not achieved in a linear fashion. We know that narrow approaches to parts of the curriculum, for example, phonics, don’t lead to the best outcomes for all. We also know that practitioners working with children in the 0-5 age range have very different working conditions and professional lives to those in the more formalised arena of the teaching profession. In my recent AGM speech on behalf of the pre-school whose committee I chair, I spoke to the parents present about how;

‘Every spring, [our Early Years Professional] and I look ahead to the autumn term and worry if we’ll have enough children attending to be viable. [She] has bucket load of qualifications and decades of experience, doing what she does from vocation and conviction; her professional equals, teachers in Foundation Stage classrooms up and down the country, will be earning at least twice, if not three times as much as she, with a security of tenure that we [the committee] can only dream of achieving on behalf of our staff.’

Divisions that are based on working conditions, salaries, professional status and the like do have the potential to separate, politically speaking, practitioners; practitioners who would otherwise share very similar world views, and are equally passionate about what they do. The Ministers themselves don’t plan to offer us any help here, as they miss yet another opportunity to give Early Years Professional the qualified teacher status they so very much deserve . Yet, as members of society who care about the progress of all children, we all, in both fields, need to sidestep this particular bear-trap. Similarly, we need to avoid falling into separate camps that are borne out of our individual approaches to campaigning.

A recent piece on the BBC news website highlighted the approach taken by Mexican teachers in their fight against government reforms. They have taken to the streets, formed mass protests, broken into government buildings and thrown equipment out of windows. It hasn’t come to this here in the UK, but we do have threatening strike action and calls for rallies and protest marches. Responses to online consultations have been voluminous, and there are petitions aplenty; though I find myself, in low moments, wondering if such measures can truly effect change. The Pre-school Learning Alliance states it needs 10,000 signatories on its rewind ratios petition before it will be considered for discussion at parliamentary level; that’s a pretty tall order.

No wonder then, that cynicism begins to play a part in our thinking. In a discussion I found myself involved in on twitter just today, two blogger chums and I questioned the effectiveness of e-petitions; my friend @liveotherwise wondering if they have become ‘political opium’, with new-to-blogging @premmeditations adding that perhaps signing such online petitions or sharing links on facebook have come to take the place of genuine action, and are just ‘white noise that’s easy to sleep to’. In no way do I wish to undermine the efforts of Penny Webb , Debra Kidd or their like. I am happy to sign, happy to help share – and have done so because I admire their stances a great deal. But I also find myself, on an almost daily basis, nodding my head in agreement with the dry wit of @alanmills405 on twitter, who through his acerbic questioning of all that happens in Gove’s department and beyond, makes me feel that it almost doesn’t matter what we do.

But let’s not abandon our pursuit of victory via the path of white-haired radicalism just yet. Well-informed professionals who blog, such as Nicktomjoe and Crishildrew, call on us to be co-operative in our attitude, to delve deeper into what is being said to us and to engage in the debate. Part of me wants to say, ‘Why should we when Gove won’t himself respond in an appropriate manner?’ Another part of me thinks that isn’t the point. High profile white-haired radicals, such as Mick Waters, or the aforementioned Professor Nutbrown, do not resort to insult when their words fall on stony political ground. They keep going, presenting carefully constructed, evidence-based arguments, willing us to show through the power of our knowledge-base that we do deserve to be heard. Indeed, Sam Freedman of TeachFirst argued just last week that Gove is a reader of numerous blogs  and that he does take account of their content. Sam has previously been an advisor to Gove, and understandably, debate about his perspective has rattled on ever since, particularly around which teacher blogs Gove does or does not choose to listen to. But, whichever mast Sam ties his own political colours to, he makes an interesting point; that there is such an overflow of information washing towards the DfE, and that maybe it isn’t surprising therefore that the Ministers pick and choose their reading material.

I started this piece with all kinds of internal reservations about standing out from the crowd, putting my head above the parapet, and other such militarily-inclined metaphors. I’m trying to start a business here, as well as express concern for the industry I care about, after all. But, as I have been so inspired during the last few weeks by so many other practitioners, academics, and thinkers who are stepping up to the plate to defend the principles to which they hold so dear, it would be a pretty poor show if I didn’t do the same. And I am, by nature, optimistic; when big media players like Mumsnet join in the debate, possibilities open up. And perhaps the article that has most inspired me, for the sheer clarity of thought contained therein, is this call for a day of action on June 1st by June O’Sullivan. For me, this one piece brings together so many elements of the protestations of teachers and the early years profession alike. It speaks, for all of us, of how much we know, how much we believe, how hard we work. Let’s get behind June’s call, speak in unison, and get ourselves heard.


2 thoughts on “White-haired radicalism and the evidence-free administration: The Evernote Files

  1. Sue

    I agree, we need to stand up so we can be counted. As a sector I think we all value the diversity of perspectives we bring to our work but it is perhaps this very diversity that could be our downfall here. If we speak with too many voices we will not be heard or listened to. For the sake of our children we need to stand together now and speak with one voice.

    1. Leoarna Post author

      You have succintly summarised me with great clairty Sue – exactly; we musn’t let our diversity mean our voice isn’t loud enough! Thanks for stopping by…


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