The text below, is, with minor amendments to protect both her and my identity, a full copy of a letter I have this evening emailed to my MP. I’ll let you know whether it brings about a positive result! My thanks to the Too Much Too Soon campaign for their model letter, which although I have amended and personalised (borrowing from earlier blog writing of my very own!), forms the basis of a letter that any one of your reading could send to your MP. If you felt inclined….
On 27.09, you responded to a tweet I sent indicating that you were open to my conducting further correspondence with you regarding our meeting on 30.10, at a parliamentary lobby by the Too Much Too Soon campaign. I write to furnish you with further details, as requested. I write as a mother of a nearly-five-year-old and a one-year-old; as a former inspector of Early Years provision; as a columnist for Teach Nursery magazine; as a Chair of the Committee of XXXX Pre-school; and as a newly appointed Governor of XXXX Primary School.
In support of the Open Letter to the Telegraph and the newly launched ‘Too Much, Too Soon Campaign’, www.toomuchtoosoon.org , I am very concerned about the government’s current approach to the early years and, in particular, to its insistence on seeing this stage of life as predominantly a preparation for school, rather than a unique and vitally important developmental stage in its own right. The term ‘school readiness’ has been dominating policy pronouncements, despite considerable criticism from the sector. Indeed, the time has come to ask, and not just in a rhetorical sense, why it is we need children to be school-ready, rather than ensuring our schools are children-ready.
The role of play is also being down-valued in England’s nurseries and pre-schools. For many children today, nursery education provides their only opportunity for the active, creative and learning enriched play which is recognised by psychologists as vital for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. However, two key qualifications currently being drawn up for early years teachers, practitioners, and child carers no longer require training in understanding how children learn through play. Indeed, current policy suggestions would mean that the tests and targets which dominate primary education will soon be foisted upon 4 year olds at the point of school entry, creating downward pressure on pre-school provision to prepare children for the test. Children in England are recognised as being amongst the most tested and pressurised in the world and Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, now wants this downward pressure to be imposed on our youngest children, despite the fact that in a recent opinion survey, over 98 per cent of the almost 1,000 respondents voted against Sir Michael’s proposed formal assessments in pre-school settings.
Research does not support an early start to testing and quasi-formal teaching, but provides considerable evidence to challenge it. Very few countries have a school starting age as young as 4, as we do in England. Children who enter school at 6 or 7 – after several years of high quality nursery education – consistently achieve better educational results as well as higher levels of well-being. The success of Scandinavian systems suggests that many intractable problems in British education – such as the widening gap in achievement between rich and poor, problems with boys’ literacy, and the ‘summer-borns’ issue – could be addressed by fundamentally re-thinking our early years provision.
Prescriptions of Ritalin for ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ (ADHD) have quadrupled in the last decade, prompting increasing fears that it is being used to ‘normalise’ behaviour and without consideration of the long-term effects. This has a particularly serious impact for boys. The level of children being identified with learning difficulties in England has now been reported as five times the European average. 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 now suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class. Over 8,000 children aged under 10 years old are now reported as suffering from severe depression.
Instead of pursuing an enlightened approach informed by global best practice, successive Ministers have prescribed an ever-earlier start to formal learning. This can only cause profound damage to the self-image and learning dispositions of a generation of children. 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’ 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 and wider policy stances. The letter to the Telegraph that began this campaign was dismissed by sources close to the Minister as being the work of a group “who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.” And just today, in a response to yet another substantial group of academics and writers questioning the policy thrust of the Department, further inappropriate comments from DfE spokespersons have come to light; “The Blob keep sending letters full of vapid clichés because their power base is dissolving”. The tone of the language used by those close to the Minister appear to me to lack appropriate decorum – but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when he himself uses the phrase “yada, yada, yada” to describe the contribution of a fellow member of the House of Commons to a debate on national television.
This battle of words grows unnecessarily undignified, and is, at best, a distraction from the issue at hand. For me, the following question focuses my mind fully on what really matters: What do our youngest 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. EPPE states that it is the quality of pre-school and nursery 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 both Brown’s, and then Cameron’s, 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. All parts of the sector, driven by their secure evidence base, continue to argue hard for their reasoned voices to be heard. On June 1st this year, the early years sector held a national day of action. In September, the #Ofstedbigconversation saw the sector come together to make productive suggestions for the better inspection of their work. Today has seen the NUT and NASUWT join together (a rare thing in their history) to strike against changes to pay, conditions and the curriculum.
I know you are a woman not afraid to voice your views, and that, as a scientist, you draw upon a secure evidence base for the policy stances you take. In this spirit, I very much appreciate you indicating your willingness to participate in the 30.10 Too Much Too Soon parliamentary lobby. As my MP, I would welcome the opportunity to hear your views on the current policy focus of the DfE and your voting intentions when these issues are put to the House.
I look forward to hearing from you,