The wrong notes in the wrong order

Michael Wilshaw addressed the great and the good in Westminster Hall last Thursday morning. As is increasingly the case, the content of his speech made a few headlines. As is always the case, everything that he said left those who actually understand early years and primary education outraged and despairing.

The seas of education have been choppy since May 2010. Right now, with a year to go to the next election, they are positively stormy. As Gove and Truss make policy announcements almost daily – desperate to make their mark, egos running amok – David Laws seems unable to rein them in. And in their midst, Wilshaw, demonstrates an uncanny ability to sound more like a politician than what he actually is, an unelected civil servant charged with a regulatory role.

I printed off the text of Wilshaw’s speech, finding myself intrigued by the depth of consternation his words had caused, as evidenced by my social media feeds and my reading of digital newsprint. What I found in no way surprised me. But boy, am I worried for the condition of early years if his ideas are allowed to flourish. I had so many objections to his pronouncements I found myself having to categorise them. His speech is too lengthy for me to reprint sections here, but I am hoping you’ll skim read his words before proceeding with this post – but even if you don’t I think you’ll be more than able to get the gist of my arguments.

Step in, dear reader, to the crazy, brutal and potentially catastrophic vision of Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Chapter One: In which Michael fails to be evidence-based in his arguments

Wilshaw does actually reference research from time to time. When talking of the enormous learning potential of very young children, he is right to say that the development of the brain structures during the early years represent a period of ‘dramatic potential’ – but many studies have told us how best to promote this potential, and it is not through formalised, structured teaching of the kind we associate with schools.

Later on in his speech he goes on to voice his support for the formalised testing of children as they begin their school careers. I find the lack of research support for this policy decision utterly baffling, and I don’t know anyone in the sector who thinks it is a good idea. But Michael doesn’t trouble himself with such unnecessary detail; ploughing ahead with his belief that it he knows best. Is this, perhaps, because his own organisation’s obsession with measuring the impact schools have upon pupil progress will be made a little easier if there yet another set of data? Just join the dots inspectors, from four, to seven, to eleven. It will save you the trouble of actually trying to get to know the school you are inspecting or the children they are educating. Surely testing four years olds will be time-consuming, stressful for pupils and staff and utterly meaningless. Who you are at 49 months is not at all who you are 58 months; why on earth would you think that a coherent set of useful data can be extracted thus? What is so wrong in allowing skilled practitioners to complete the EYFS profile and use that as evidence of where children are at?

Chapter Two: In which Michael uses terminology that makes the blood of right-thinking folk run cold

Wilshaw works hard to persuade us that his use of the word ‘teach’, in relation to our very youngest children, is the exact right one – and that anyone who resists its use is, by implication, as ‘woolly’ as the enemies of promise and Marxist blob that Gove once described. Early years practitioners and professionals have generally used a different language, one of promoting development or progress, of facilitation, of creating enabling environments and building relationships. They know that there is an element of ‘teaching’ in what they do, but they resist the description of what they do as purely ‘teaching’, because research shows them that their pedagogy must be different to the one employed by those who work with children over five, precisely because their ‘pupils’ are very different creatures. He can go ahead and call what they do whatever he likes, but the early years community knows what it is that it does, and ‘teach’ does not wholly describe it.

School Readiness. These two words now have the capacity to make clear thinking individuals look up the skies and metaphorically weep for the generation who are now the subject of this ideological narrow-mindedness. He argues that early years settings aren’t clear about what school readiness means. Far from it. Most early years practitioners are acutely aware of the gap between the skills and understanding that they know their charges need to survive the transition to the primary system, and what they believe is the correct set of learning experiences for those children. They live this tension day in, day out. I’m not the first person to say it, but when are we going to start talking about making schools children-ready, and not the reverse? When is he going to understand, what so many well-informed researchers, academics, and professionals from the world over know, that school is better later and play should go on for longer? All he will do, in pressing forward this skewed agenda, is create more failure, more disillusionment. Thousands of children, who for whatever reason (be it they are summer-born, or not possessed of learning styles that incline them towards formal learning) won’t get the hang of school, or keep up with their class peers, and will struggle. He won’t narrow the gap, he will widen it.

Chapter Three: In which Michael oversteps his remit and demonstrates a woefully inadequate understanding of the early years sector

No-one would argue with Wilshaw, as he despairs at the inequalities that persist in our society – but let’s remember he is in a trusted position of influence as a regulator, no more no less. Furthermore, there are elements of his speech that show he hasn’t done his homework.

If you are going to talk to knowledgeable people, you should bring yourself up to speed with at least the basics of their field of influence. So when he talks of children under five attending wraparound care or before and after school clubs, he demonstrate ignorance of his own organisation’s processes. These types of provision are not able to care for such young children by virtue of the regulation preventing them from doing so. Similarly, he is incorrect to suggest that local authorities do not use the quality of provision as a determinant in allocating funded places. Generally, local authorities do not allocate funding for two-year old places to settings that have been judged less than Good by Ofsted.

Some of his arguments are simply unfathomable. Why would a school be interested in the outcome of the two year old check in our present system, for example, as he suggests? It is as if he thinks that early years providers are entirely unable to promote a child’s development in the intervening years, that we should assess their abilities at two and then wait for the school to do the rest at post five?

Similarly unfathomable is his absolute faith in the capacity of schools to absorb this substantial new remit into their day to day operations. Do we ask primary teachers who specialise in Key Stage 1 to make a sudden shift into teaching GCSE History? No, we don’t. We accept that the requisite skills and professional knowledge to carry out these differing tasks may not overlap in one single teacher. So why does Wilshaw assume that a primary trained teacher will suddenly know how to properly promote the development of two year olds? I’ve seen pre-schools absorbed into schools, their managers made redundant, and the Foundation Stage teacher attempt to plan for both sets of children, with the help of teaching assistants. It hasn’t worked well…

Chapter Four: In which Michael betrays an underlying obsession with boosting the economy, at the expense of a true understanding of childhood

Wilshaw references the economic benefits to society of improving the educational attainment of our young people frequently. That’s fair enough, I suppose – we live in a global marketplace, and we have to sink or swim, so they tell us. He talks of the research done by The Sutton Trust into what we need to do to ensure social mobility is translated into economic reality. None would argue with the rigour with which The Sutton Trust put their papers together – but is it acceptable to keep on arguing that we will suffer as a global economic power to the exclusion of all other, more humanitarian, motivations for making improvements to the life chances of the next generation?

At no point does Wilshaw acknowledge the importance of secure attachments and consistent care to children under five. (We could put this down to his failure to read relevant research.) So, while he’s right to say that we need to tackle the funding gap for early years provision, he may well be wrong to argue that 15 hours may not be enough for our most disadvantaged children. These children need consistent, warm but authoritative parenting, more than they need somewhere to go between 9am and 3pm. Freeing their parents from child caring responsibilities so they can go out and do many more hours at minimum wage, and then return home exhausted to put their child to bed is not, necessarily, the best solution for all.

Chapter Five: In which Michael refuses to acknowledge the part he has played in undermining the early years sector

I would agree with Wilshaw when he states that the variety of provision in early years is confusing. What I resent is the implication that those in early years could have done anything to clear up this confusion in the last 30 years or so. No government has grasped the nettle; early years should be funded and supported in the same way that post-five education has been for so, so long. In short, all efforts to professionalise and standardise have been undermined by the failure of successive governments to see the value in provision for children under five. For me there is deep irony in how much the politicians talk now of the gap that must be narrowed – they have done so much to allow it to develop in the first place.

If, as Wilshaw says, it is difficult to find a high quality place with a childminder, pre-school or nursery, then he needs to look to his own organisation for the answer. Successive governments have left the whole early years sector despondent, under-valued and unable to gain any equality of status with others in the educational field. Every time the framework is revised, a further tranche of dedicated practitioners leave, worn too thin by the unsatisfactory working conditions and regulatory burden. So, while he is right to argue that we must make it easier for all families to find the provision that meets their needs, lets also make sure that all provision operates within parameters that the evidence shows us works best for our children, and is freed up to make good decisions about how to best meet the needs of the children in its care.

Beyond this, and if I had slaved away in the early years sector over the last decade, I would feel pretty insulted by his assertion that Ofsted’s attempts to persuade the sector to focus on learning have been only partially successful. Ofsted is the regulator (I say it again!) not the body charged with shaping policy; Ofsted’s job has been to ensure the sector meets the requirements set by government. Nothing else.

Towards the end of his speech Wilshaw talks of why we cannot rely on the early years sector, in its present form, to deliver what our youngest children need. He rides roughshod over the professional pride of many in the sector. If there aren’t enough of the right type of providers, Michael, why not? Because successive governments have refused to acknowledge, through pay, conditions and sustainability measures, the work the sector does. Every new inspection framework results in more longstanding practitioners giving up and moving on. This isn’t just sorting the wheat from the chaff, it is throwing out many good ‘ears’ too. They leave because they feel undervalued, underpaid and overwhelmed. He also bemoans the lack of inspiring leadership in early years. Err, hello Michael? You get out what you put in, and too many before you have failed to put in anything much at all. The fact is that there are many, many astonishing good leaders in early years, but in order to continue in their jobs, they have to be vocationally dedicated in the extreme. They have to accept that they are unlikely to be recognised by their local community, or society at large, for the supreme good that they do. They do what they do for not much more than minimum wage, Michael – are you as vocationally dedicated?

Finally, Wilshaw’s extended description of the family from the estate needs unpicking. He says that parents ‘from the estate’ don’t know how to find good quality childcare, but they do know how to find their local school, walk into it, and ask the questions they need answers to. I say he doesn’t really understand the people he is talking about. Putting to one side his somewhat offensive categorisation of a certain kind of family, let’s be honest here. There are some for whom school was an entirely negative experience, and the chances of these particular people seeing a school as a place of help and support, now that they are parents themselves, are close to zero. In contrast, the warm, non-judgemental welcome that those same people often receive at a children’s centre, or a charity-run pre-school, can do much to realign that family’s relationship with outside agencies.

Chapter Six: In which Michael overstates the role of Ofsted

In the middle of his speech Sir Michael talks of how poor data prevents families and others from making good choices, and prevents accountability. If we do have poor data – and I think the authors of EPPE, the CPR and the Nutbrown Review might have something to say about that comment – then perhaps Ofsted itself is to blame. You only find out what you want to know if you ask the ‘right’ questions, seek out the ‘right’ facts.

He criticises the focus on compliance, rather than on the quality of educational delivery – but compliance matters a lot in early years. An eighteen-month old cannot tell you whether or not she is being well-cared for. A three year old cannot articulate the extent to which they know they are being properly safeguarded. To ‘streamline’ regulation so that schools can more easily take on the care of two to five year olds feels like the slipperiest of slopes. When Blair’s government brought the regulation of early years into Ofsted it made a degree of sense. Local authorities varied enormously in the standards they applied to the childcare within their boundaries, but the establishment of Ofsted Early Years inspection in 2001 ended such inconsistency. Wilshaw seems keen to reintroduce local variances, by allowing schools to take on the care of younger children with less regulatory scrutiny. Wilshaw risks Gove’s wrath by insisting that academies and free schools are subject to the same inspection regime as maintained schools. So why is he prepared to tolerate a similar inconsistency in allowing schools an easier route to registration for under-fives? Who will speak for the safety and wellbeing of our youngest children if he is allowed to push his ideas through to the statute books?


Wilshaw is ultimately right to say that the gap between the most and least advantaged is not closing. Where he parts company from most right-thinking people is in believing that educational organisations – schools, early years providers – can fix all of society’s ills in this regard. He’s right to say that there is ‘nothing inevitable about the link between poverty and failure’. What the early years and teaching professions would say in return is that they alone cannot solve the inherent issues that lie at the root of such inequality. In an infamous Morecambe and Wise sketch, Eric’s concert pianist attempts Grieg’s piano concerto, while Andre Previn conducts the orchestra. Previn, his tone incredulous at the noise he is hearing, eventually asks Eric what he is playing, adding ‘you’re playing all the wrong notes!’. Eric’s retort? ‘I’m playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order.’ Delivered as only he could deliver lines, we still, forty years or so later, fall about with laughter. But Michael, hear our heartfelt plea: You are playing all the wrong notes, in the wrong order. And we certainly aren’t laughing. Please listen, think, and listen some more. We know the score much better; we’ve played the piece many, many more times than you.





Setting them on the right course for less than the cost of a Latte

I chair the committee of a small, rural charity-run pre-school. We operate from a modest prefab building on a school site, and are lucky enough to have a sizable garden with a covered play space, a substantial summer-house, and a wooded area. We are tenants, rather than having any operational relationship to the school. Each September, thanks to the impact of single entry (which on principle I object to – you can read more about why here ) our numbers are low and our finances incredibly tight. Dedicated staff are kind enough to not mind our having to ask them to work fewer sessions. By the Spring, we can lower our worry levels by a few notches, and by last July in particular, we were bursting at the seams. We are, I imagine, much the same as thousands of other independent, voluntary committee led pre-schools up and down the country. All of us believe in our independence, our charitable status, our ability to match ourselves the community we serve. All of us are finding the current politico-economic climate tough. More than tough.

Our pre-school has undergone a substantial change of late. Our Early Years Professional, who has been managing the setting for 17 years, has left to undertake post-graduate study. We have an experienced team, a strong deputy who has readily stepped up to the plate of manager, and a proactive committee. As chair, my background as an Early Years inspector for Ofsted and then Tribal, has proved useful as we collectively steady the ship and steer ourselves through this transitional time. My overall assessment of the degree to which we are coping with this significant change would be overwhelmingly positive.

But it hasn’t been easy. There have been some challenging conversations, as we reinvent ourselves; I’ve seen many times over how a pre-school can focus it’s survival – as well as its capacity to grow – around the personality and commitment of one practitioner. I think it is a phenomenon quite commonly found in rural areas, where there is hardly an abundance of suitably qualified and experienced professionals. Our pre-school matched this description, and before we were faced with the reality, most people connected to the group would have found it hard to imagine us succeeding without her. But we are managing, all the same. But, as I said, some discussions have been difficult to get through. During one such conversation, a senior member of the team wondered out loud why we must be run by a committee. She felt a little frustrated, and I can understand why. Committee’s come and go, with varying skill sets and levels of enthusiasm. They get to make decisions that affect the staff team’s working lives to a significant degree, but they are given this serious responsibility without any requirement to understand, on a professional level, the issues at hand.

I often find myself saying that there is something laughable and inherently flawed in a system that has me, a volunteer, a novice, managing a team of professionals, who are undertaking one of the most important tasks in society. As a pragmatist I get on with the job, yet when a more strategic view-point is adopted, it does look like utter madness. Nevertheless, I can, despite this view, wholeheartedly defend the model which our team member so rightly questioned. The pre-school movement began in the early 1960s. A response to the lack of nursery provision for young children, individual parents set up playgroups in their homes, and their popularity meant that many of them quickly moved to larger premises, village or church halls, in the main. Both my husband and I have memories of the groups we attended, one in a Methodist Hall, another in the proprietor’s garage. By the time I was three, playgroups were already being described, by senior politician, Sir Keith Joseph, as “an essential social service”. And by 1982, the Pre-school Learning Alliance had 17,000 members and Diana, Princess of Wales as its patron.

Our group began life in a private home in the tiniest of Devon villages. We’ve had, I think, three further homes since then, and have been in our current space for just over a decade. We are a PLA member, having adopted its constitution. Thus we are as typical a group as you are ever likely to find. The PLA and its members have seen a heck of a lot of policy come and go since its inception. We are, 50 years on from that moment, metaphorically awash with new policy in the childcare and the education arena. Having recently become a primary school governor, I can see how the agenda of constant-change is no less intense for over-5 provision as it is for those in early years. Crossing between these two worlds I see much that is common to both. Disparate strands of decision-making that issue forth from the DfE and the Treasury are hard to fuse together into any coherent vision on both sides of the five-year old fence. Peddling so hard to keep up with all this change does get in the way of actually just doing the job we are charged with.

Let’s take a look at the kinds of policy shifts I am referring to. Example one; Universal free school meals for all Key Stage 1 children. On the surface, noble, but underneath, one is left asking ‘why?’. Where did the money come from? Might it have been better spent on building new schools or improving the ones we have , given the growing crisis in primary places ? And is this really more important than finding more sustainable ways of teaching families how to feed their children more healthily? Two; opening new free schools and the expansion of academies has radically changed the landscape of English education. 66% of secondary schools and 13% of primary schools now have academy or free school status. I am no expert on the free school movement, but my observation on it all goes something like this. It seems much easier to win funding for a new building or building improvements when you are a free school or an academy. There is yet to be any convincing evidence that these schools are inherently better for our children, so why the favouritism? And at what cost to the rest of the education system? Indeed, there are some people wondering who now ‘owns’ the once state-owned assets of school sites up and down the land. Again, my amateur-commentator status precludes my from making any truly astute observations, but I am fascinated that so few people are questioning academy / free school growth from this perspective.

Three: this autumn sees a radical overhaul of Special Educational Needs provision in primary schools. For a long time now, at pre-school level, we have genuinely struggled to access anything that one might describe as consistent, coherent support for children with additional needs. This worrying characteristic of early years provision now looks set to be extended beyond 5. The changes seem to me, as a governor with direct responsibility over resources and staffing, to simply be designed to make the job of supporting certain pupils even harder. On the face of it, it looks like an attempt to introduce market forces into the provision of support for our most vulnerable children. And four; Pumping up the proposed support for childcare costs by a substantial amount at last week’s budget. Now again, I am no economist, but I do understand that if you only support a system at the consumer end, and don’t do anything to level the playing field or support the supply side, all you do is feed the continuous cycle of inflated costs. If parents are given more money to pay for it, private childcare businesses will charge more, but this increased revenue won’t necessarily lead to improved quality for the children.

I have plenty more seemingly disparate but actually interconnected examples to share. But perhaps it would be more pertinent to focus in on just one more, and draw out its relevance to my own situation as chair of a pre-school that struggles to survive. Last week saw Royal Assent given to the Children and Families Act 2014. Amongst many other things, this legislation now gives Childminders the ‘right’ to belong to an agency, who will assume responsibility on behalf of its members for administration, fee setting, and quality assurance. Ultimately it will mean that the agency itself is inspected by Ofsted and not, critically, its individual members. I have already witnessed so much resistance to this move, and my belief is that under the leadership of people such as Penny Webb, there is as yet a distance to travel in terms of fighting back. And why is it important to do so? Simply put, because it will create a two-tier system amongst childminders and will ultimately impact on quality. It fires at the heart of the independence of which so many childminders are fiercely (and rightly) proud. And if this legislation can undermine the independence of one part of the childcare sector, who is to say that, given a second term in the DfE, Ms Truss and Mr Gove won’t launch a similar attack on the independent pre-school movement?

Lat week Michael Wilshaw wrote to all Early Years Inspectors urging them to do a much better job of ensuring that pre-school provision is preparing our children for school. The letter uses the phrases ‘teach’ or ‘teaching’ 18 times over two and a half pages. In interviews he gave during the week on the issue of his letter to inspectors, Wilshaw talked in bullish terms of not putting up with any settings who talk of a child-led philosophy, and more ominously, not continuing the employment of any inspector who tolerates or dares promote such an approach. This worrying move towards more structured, formalised learning environment for our very young children should be a real concern to us. Two year olds are already finding themselves in school buildings, as part of a trial . Will we really be told whether this experiment worked in favour of the children?

The  independent pre-school movement is a proud one. The process of maintaining quality within the sector should be relatively straightforward. Researchers, practitioners and the academic community should apply their rigorous standards of research-in-action, and tell the community what works best to promote the progress of children. The regulator should be aware of these findings, nay support them, and then task its inspectors with ensuring that every setting is working to what research tells is the best way forward. Somehow we have drifted away from this sensible model, to a place where personal ideology of key players, and the challenging economics of the time, are having an unnecessary and dangerous influence. Every policy that has issued forth since 2010 election has been motivated by political ideology, personal experiences of those with the power to legislate, or treasury concerns about the availability of a large enough workforce to prop up our ailing economy. With a year to go to the next election, we now have thinly veiled vote winning tactics thrown in for good measure.

The net result? Simply put, I fear for the future of the pre-school I care so much about. Government should be giving me, the committee and our remarkable staff team all the support in the world to ensure that the 30 or so children we care for get the very best start in life. Instead, they are cutting our budget, undermining our independence, threatening us with being swallowed up into a nearby school (whether or not it wants us) and contradicting the very evidence-based philosophy upon which we have done our good work for decades. We do what we do for £3.60 per hour, per head. This figure, the amount we receive from our local authority, hasn’t changed in five years. Less than the price of a Latte and slice of cake. That we are not-for-profit, and managed in part by the very families who use our service is the true beauty of our system; we are for the people, by the people, not distracted by the need to satisfy share-holders or others. This is, in essence, my answer to our staff member who questioned the way we are organised. We do it because it works, and works brilliantly for the children whom we serve. But for how much longer? I do not know. I really don’t.

(S)he who changes the mind of one….

I am a serial collector of sayings; all my life I have jotted down pithy and erudite statements heard via the radio, picked up in books, etc, etc, ad nauseum. One I have been using for at least two decades seemed appropriate last week. He who changes the life of one, changes the life of a thousand. Only I felt the urge to exchange the word ‘life’ for ‘mind’.

Last Wednesday I went to London to try and change the mind of my MP. I stood on Whitehall exercising my democratic right to campaign, protest and make some noise. I felt exhilarated to be in the company of other parents, young children, professors, retired headmistresses, early years students, lecturers, writers, academics, all of whom had one simple message for those in parliament; to let the evidence about what works for children shape policy. Between us we tweeted our way through the day, raising profile for the Too Much Too Soon organisation. For me there were many moving moments. Talking with a father, who was also a primary school teacher, who had come along simply because, having been on strike the week before, he wanted a better answer for his two and a half year old daughter. Watching six children of different ages carrying our sizeable banner along Whitehall and up to Old Palace Yard. Witnessing people I’d only just met but have admired for much longer deliver a 7,500-strong petition to No 10. Seeing our collective together on the steps in front of George V’s statue for a photo. Hearing stories of members of our group who passed Michael Gove in the hall ways of Westminster and who made sure he got one of our leaflets.

In Committee room 6 we listened to some eloquent and informed individuals who shared their concerns about the condition of British childhood, speaking with a quiet authority,   notable for being in stark contrast to the tone of much that emanates from the DfE. I had cause to dip out of these proceedings to engage with my MP and her researcher. I’ll write more about that in the future when I am more certain of the outcome of our discussions, but I am optimistic that I may be able to, at the very least, show her why my ambition to change her mind matters so much.

The TMTS campaign has undoubtedly gathered momentum as a result of the events last Thursday. Just this week, members of the group have had their views sought as Baroness Morgan, Chair of Ofsted argued, without an evidence base, for yet more overtly formal education for ever younger children. Progress is being made. To paraphrase Richard Jerrard of R4 Today programme observed on twitter today, there is a ‘chink in the armour’.

When one of your very own Tory predecessors claims that the base of your educational policy is dangerously ideological and too narrowly based upon personal experience, it might be time to listen, Michael. We may not share much else with Ken Baker, but we think he makes a very strong point, and we wont stop until you do.

tmts collage

A letter to my MP

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’, , 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,

Yours sincerely,

Leoarna Mathias

Brunel and Wordsworth didn’t do SATS

After a couple of month’s break from blogging about Gove, Truss and their inexplicable madness, I have been inspired today to pick up my laptop and start speaking simple truths again – as I see them.

Life is like a very short visit to the toy shop between birth and death, said Desmond Morris.

Would anyone really take issue with the idea that children should be allowed to be just that – to be children? To discover, play, imagine, wonder, and do? There is pleasure to be had in simply watching our children interact, engage, aspire and transform. They set their own curriculum . They know what they need to learn at an instinctual level; what they unconsciously desire from the adults around them is a tweak here and there, to keep them safe, or hints at what else can be done with the resources and possibilities they have to hand. If life really is as Morris describes, surely we have a duty to permit our children an extended opportunity to savour the toys in the toy shop?

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they are of a different time – Hebrew proverb.

I’ve made use of this phrase before in the context of writing about current DfE thinking about children’s learning, but I use it again today as it seems yet again relevant. Gove, Truss, in fact, most politicians belong to a certain collective, where ways were paved and educations paid for. It is not like this for most people . But that does not stop those of us who did not experience this kind of schooling succeeding in life. My eminent friend Sue Cowley writes of the Clever Cult and their power over all, while knowing all the time that this isn’t a club we should be encouraging our children to enter. We should not confuse membership of this cult with having been in receipt of a decent education – as Mick Waters as pointed out. A true education is a much larger thing than school attendance. Just because our own educations, however long ago they were, or wherever they were conducted, led one man to achieve something that leads him to feel he has succeeded, does not mean that we have reached the end of what there is to learn about how every child could be schooled, or that we know all there is to know about learning.

This is, in essence, what the Cambridge Primary Review  told us; that there was more for us to know about how children progress, more we could to aid them. But the recommendations of this deeply important research (that our children should play for longer and go to school later) were rejected on the basis that they weren’t what parents wanted. ‘Nonsense’ – says this parent (and quite a few others). Does a lioness say ‘Hey, kids, stop playing rough and tumble with each other, that’s not on today’s lesson plan – you’re supposed to be chasing gazelles’? No, she doesn’t. She sees the wisdom in letting them rough and tumble and helps them extend their game. She allows them to follow their own lines of enquiry, and facilitates their journey to adulthood.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

I am no physicist but I understand the physical and metaphorical significance of this well-known phrase. If one man, with an extreme and, some might say, particularly narrow view of what a child’s education should consist of, gains an opportunity to wield power in dictatorial fashion, it is only to be expected that other members of society will attempt to pull on the other end of the rope. As far as I can see, the people on the other end of this rope are intelligent, well-informed, enquiring and compassionate. I’m throwing my lot in with them. If I read Cleanslate, Julie Cigman, 3DEye, the aforementioned Sue Cowley, Ray WilcocksonJune O’Sullivan, and Richard House to name but a few, and their words make sense to me, I am going to join in their calls for change. My molecules are poised to work in opposition to the molecules that spin around the insides of the DfE.

We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer — a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up – DfE Spokesperson, September 2013

Brunel and Wordsworth didn’t take a SATs test when the were seven, or even five. Tim Berners-Lee did just fine without needing to decode nonsense phonemes when he was six. Ted Hughes, as an August baby, probably had a gentle introduction to school following the Easter holidays. Julia Donaldson has produced an inspiring body or work , without the necessity of doing mountains of homework while in primary school. James Dyson probably did half days for a while. TS Eliot managed to accomplish quite a lot without compulsory schooling at a younger age than any of his European counterparts.

I think I’ve made my point.

You are not required to complete the work, but nor are you allowed to abstain from it – (another) Hebrew Proverb.

If you’ve read this and you feel equal parts outrage and dogged determination, I have achieved my simple aim. Before you switch your laptop off, go to this page and sign the petition, share it via your social media platforms (use the hashtag #TooMuchTooSoon) and then consider whether you can attend this day of action. I’ll see you there.

More than one way to crack an egg

Alongside my work with this consultancy, and my writing work, I am also Chair of my daughter’s pre-school. It is, like so many groups across the UK, a remarkable little place that achieves much with very little. Our survival seems always to be hanging in the balance somehow, but I guess that we aren’t much different to many in this regard either.

Our EYP is a remarkable woman. ‘Vocationally devoted’ doesn’t even begin to describe how much of herself she gives to the group. Her passion, her skill and her talent in drawing out the best from the young children in her care is amongst the best I ever saw whilst inspecting. A long time before I had children, I had the privilege of inspecting the group and to this day, a decade or so on, I still feel it was the best pre-school provision I ever saw. That it happened to be 3 minutes from my house is just one of those gifts from the Universe that I will be forever grateful for. Now I am on the inside, as a parent and a committee member, there are no surprises to me when it comes to how hard it is to keep the group going. What’s more surprising is the willingness of the team to keep going in the face of all that challenges us.

For a lot of reasons we haven’t felt able to hold a day of action in support of June O’Sullivan’s call. But the EYP and I felt we still wanted our parent group to know a little more about the story behind the headlines, and so during half term, we have sent them this email. If you would like to make use of the text in any way for your own parent group, then please feel free to borrow, edit and so forth.

We can all of us make a difference, if we act together.

Dear Parents,

I’ve asked [our Play Leader] to forward this email to you during the holidays. You may have heard recent press reports of proposed changes to aspects of how childcare is regulated and organised here in the England (in other parts of the union different legislation applies). We felt it important to try and give you a flavour of what the legislative changes may mean to groups such as ours.

Running pre-school provision is already very difficult, as we operate on budgets that are tiny by comparison to schools. We are paid per head per hour, which means that the number on roll at any one time profoundly influences our finances. When we drop at the end of this term from nearly 40 families to less than 20, we will have to, as we do every year, ask every member of staff to take a cut in hours and pay. That they are willing to stay flexible enough to then build their hours up little by little as the year progresses, is our great fortune; just one of the many things that make our team so great.

The proposed changes to the ratios of adults to children in groups such as ours are based entirely on (flawed) economics, and are in direct contradiction to what good research shows is best for our kids. Our government knows that, with the second highest childcare costs in the world, they must do something to win the votes of hardworking families who are struggling to make ends meet at the next election. However, their ideas are based on models of childcare from other nations, and are designed to make childcare cheaper, but not necessarily better. The minister responsible has visited only 6 childcare settings during her time in post, and borrows concepts from Scandinavia, France and Holland that are already considered to be problematic by the governments in those countries. There is widespread opposition to her proposals, which are set to become law this autumn, from the Early Years profession and academic community. Nick Clegg has already hinted that they may not be in children’s best interests, suggesting there is division within the cabinet.

The proposed changes to the qualifications of those who work with children aged 0-5 sounds, on the surface, a good thing. Of course we want the adults working with our children to be appropriately trained to work with our kids. But again, the academic community have unpicked the proposals and shown that they will only serve to exclude a large cohort of people who otherwise have a great deal to offer our young children. Secondly, they have proved time and time again there is no causal relationship between highly qualified staff and good quality care. Qualifications are only one part of the picture in the make-up of a good practitioner.

The impact such legislation would have upon our group is profound. While there is no intention to oblige groups to increase the ratios for 2 year olds from 1:4 to 1:6, and for 3 and 4 year olds from 1:8 to 1:13, it is likely, if our competitors chose to implement them, that our fees might begin to seem expensive by comparison. Thus we might end up feeling unduly pressured by market forces to follow suit. At our pre-school we currently choose to observe ratios that are better than current legislation demands, so that children can move freely and safely both indoors and out, and so that every child has ample opportunity to experience high quality small group, or one to one time, with a supportive adult. To force through a change to the qualification expectations of potential staff may, in time, further reduce the size of the pool from which we tend to recruit. Finding motivated staff, who want to see our children develop their full potential, is very difficult indeed in a rural job market. Working with children is ultimately a vocation, and we endeavour to inspire our staff to give of their best; to impose further expectations on them, when they already do so much, is unrealistic and unnecessary.

I in no way wish to appear party political in giving out these messages. It is much more complex than that. What I do want is to convey the passion I have for our group, the challenges we face every day in keep this little ship afloat, and my despair at such ill-conceived policy changes making it to the statute books. I am, in my professional life, connected with many of the academics who are fighting these changes, and they have planned, across England, a week of action between the 1st and 8th of June. After much deliberation, [our Play Leader] and I have conceded that holding our own event between these dates is possibly a bit too much of a logistical challenge. However, we still wanted to share with you the groundswell of feeling shared amongst practitioners and others, and to give you a chance to take action if you wish.

But what can we do? If you want to know more, get in touch with me. I have a library of web links to articles that I can forward to you that can explain the proposals in greater depth (I’ve included one below that articulates the position of many well). If you’d like to do something, there are at least two online petitions you can sign (at present, they have a combined response of over 80,000 signatures and rising) and you can also write to our MP, [ ].
[MP’s email]
[MP’s website]

Kind regards,

Leoarna Mathias, Ctte Chair

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.