Open EYE responds to the interim Rose report

EXTENDED PRESS RELEASE

Sir Jim Rose’s interim report for the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum

The Interim Rose Report on primary education impacts the pre-school early childhood realm with politically expedient recommendations that should be challenged and resisted, argues the Open EYE Campaign

BACKGROUND

Jim Rose’s interim report for the Independent Review of the Primary Curriculum was recently published. Though the report’s remit is centrally about the primary sector, there are also some limited direct ventures into the early-years sector that deserve critical examination, and it is with the latter that this press release is primarily concerned.
To be fair to Jim Rose and to the government, it is crucial, first, to disentangle the kind of informed critical analysis offered here from the blatant politicised propaganda contained in what the Times Educational Supplement leader writer rightly refers to as ‘hysterical press reporting’1 by congenitally anti-Labour newspapers and commentators, who would find a way of rubbishing whatever Sir Jim came up with. There are certainly aspects to the interim report that are encouraging from Open EYE’s standpoint, like giving attention to the ‘bloated’ primary curriculum and to the importance of oracy; Rose’s noble concern to free up the primary school system from prescriptive control; and the explicit attention given to the question of children’s social and emotional well-being. However, there are three key aspects of the report that deeply concern Open EYE – which we discuss below under the headings of: The Missing Review of the EYFS Literacy Requirements; The Question of School Starting Age; and The Place of Information Technology in the Curriculum.

1.  The Missing Review of the EYFS Literacy Requirements
In a Press Notice dated 30 June 2008 and titled ‘SIR JIM ROSE TO REVIEW GOALS ON EARLY LITERACY’,2 we read that ‘Children’s Minister Beverley Hughes today announced that Sir Jim Rose has been asked to review two of the milestones set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage as part of his review of the primary curriculum. The review will now consider whether two statements on developing literacy strike the right balance between giving children a good start in literacy skills and supporting a smooth transition from the early years into Key Stage 1 of primary school.’ Although Open EYE maintains that there are other equally questionable goals, the two goals under question here are:

• Use their phonic knowledge to write simple regular words and make phonetically plausible attempts at more complex words;
• Write their own names and other things such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences, sometimes using punctuation

We are told that ‘The Primary Review will look at how appropriate these aims are for children around age five, when evidence shows it is realistic for children to achieve them, and how we make sure that children progress well, and smoothly, between the EYFS and Key Stage 1 in primary school.’ (our italics) In a footnote, we are further told that ‘These statements are already contained in the existing Foundation Stage, and evidence from Foundation Stage Profile data shows that 46% of children already achieve the first of these, and 30% achieve the second, even before the EYFS comes into effect. Sir Jim’s review of the primary curriculum is due to report by the end of March 2009.’ Minister Beverley Hughes is also quoted thus: “We have always said that we will keep the EYFS under review, which is why I have asked Sir Jim Rose to look at two of the early learning goals on children’s literacy at around the age of five,3 and report on how well they support a smooth transition into Key Stage 1 of primary school.” (our italics)

The fanfare about a ‘government climb-down’ with which much of the media greeted Minister Hughes’ announcement only served to camouflage and obscure the degree of grudging equivocation contained in the announcement. In the above italicized text, we see the blatant biasing of the Department already in evidence – with their reassuringly telling us that ‘…evidence shows it is realistic for children to achieve [the goals]’. To the contrary, any dispassionate analysis of the available research evidence would view this as a statement verging on the disingenuous, as the bland assertion is offered without any substantiation. Our own review of the so-called ‘research evidence’ shows quite conclusively that it does not begin to support the assertion that the minister is making here.4  Note also that Rose is not asked by the minister to review the developmental appropriateness of the goals in the context of children’s development (which she could easily have requested), but merely to ‘report on how well they support a smooth transition into Key Stage 1 of primary school’. In this single statement, the ‘schoolifying’ agenda cascading into the early years is laid bare for all to see – all that seems to matter to the minister is ‘a smooth transition to schooling’ for young children, and not the developmental appropriateness per se of the learning goals.

In the light of this ministerial ambivalence, equivocation and subterfuge with the facts, perhaps it should come as no surprise that  that there is no mention whatsoever in Rose’s interim report of the two writing goals that minister Beverley Hughes reluctantly agreed should be reviewed by Rose. At the time of publication of the interim report last week, over five calendar months had elapsed since the government’s announcement of a review of the controversial EYFS learning goals. One can only question why a matter felt to be so urgent for the many thousands of  people who signed Open EYE’s Downing Street petition is being treated with such a lack of urgency. If those concerns are indeed valid, then many thousands of young children across England are at risk and quite possibly being damaged by enforced and developmentally inappropriate early literacy learning. When added to the highly equivocal attitude to the review, as described above, this (lack of) priority that Jim Rose and the government have given to this grave issue surely speaks volumes about their degree of openness to amending the framework.

2.  The Question of School Starting Age
From the report’s accurate observation that summer-born children entering reception are commonly treated as immature in comparison with their older classmates, giving rise to lack of confidence and self-regard with consequential limits on others’ expectations and their own, it is a quite incomprehensible non-sequiteur of a leap in logic for Rose then to recommend entry into reception class for four-year-olds in the September following their fourth birthday. Why not recommend that summer-born four-year-olds should start school in the September following their fifth birthday, thus avoiding such potential negative effects? The 1870 Act of Parliament made this clear with its compulsory school-starting age set at 5, not 4. Moreover and most tellingly, the Government’s own Early Education Advisory Group also recommended a later start to primary in its recent report.5
The actual rationale given in Rose’s report for summer-born children starting school the September after their fourth birthday is that, ‘Based on sound research, such as the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project (EPPSE), and plans to provide earlier access to nursery provision, the Review proposes a single point of entry to reception class in the September immediately following a child’s fourth birthday.’ Yet the EPP(S)E research, whatever else it might prove, does not provide any rationale whatsoever for this policy proposal. The only other rationale given – that of ‘plans to provide earlier access to nursery provision’ – is entirely to do with political expediency. It’s no coincidence that within days of Rose coming out, the government’s welfare reforms followed, with the extraordinary proposal for ‘preparing’ single mothers of one-year old children for going back to work6 – and with this, in turn, coinciding with a new Unicef study showing that full-time childcare for very young children is harmful.7 It is quite clear, then, that there exists no reliable evidence base underpinning this far-reaching decision about school starting age, and it is difficult not to conclude that it is driven by factors other than the age-appropriate needs of young children. There does exist, however, considerable research evidence that points towards a very different recommendation for school starting.

3.  The Place of Information Technology (ICT) in the Curriculum
There must also be major concerns about computer and ITC skills becoming ‘central pillars’ of primary education – just at a time when the speed at which children are growing up is being widely recognised as a major cultural concern. It is also likely that too much screen-based technology at an early age can interfere with some children’s ability to acquire literacy skills, and with all children’s capacity to read for pleasure (which ensures the practice necessary for true literacy).
The rationale that Rose gives for this extension of ICT – that children of this age are already computer literate, so why not simply acknowledge, work with and reinforce this trend? – is expediency of the worst kind.8 To the contrary, the fact that young children are so immersed in a technology that a great deal of research is now showing is harmful in all manner of ways to their development should be an argument for reducing it in the schooling system, and for giving children positive empowering experiences of the world that are real and relational, rather than ‘virtual’ and technological. Given what to many is the outrageous presence of ICT in the EYFS framework,9 this latest embracing of ICT for young children again suggests that cultural expediency is the driver for school policy making, and not the developmentally appropriate well-being of young children.

COMMENTARY and CONCLUSIONS
More generally, whilst Open EYE warmly welcomes Rose’s increased emphasis on play in the early primary years, and his expressed concerns about the testing regime (in  which he tellingly goes beyond the strict remit given to him by Minister Ed Balls), there are major concerns about the statement on page 5 that ‘progress is goal related, the goals of learning must be explicit in order to guide planning and teaching’. These are indeed the values and assumptions of the ‘New, Audit-Driven Utilitarianism’ in education – but these audit-culture values are not only fundamentally incompatible with many of the more laudable aspirations in Rose’s interim report, but their cascading down into the early years is a catastrophe-in-the-making for young children, and threatens to render their early experience deeply age-inappropriate.

In conclusion, we might well ask when are we going to have a policy-making process that puts the developmentally appropriate needs of young children before the needs of the economy, political expediency and the like? The case for a cabinet place for a minister whose exclusive charge is the well-being of young children is getting ever stronger.

NOTES
1.  ‘Don’t take fright at Sir Jim’s terms’, TES editorial, 12 December 2008.
2.  ‘Sir Jim Rose to Review Goals on Early Literacy’, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 30 June 2008, retrievable at:  http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2008_0133 (retrieved 13/12/08)
3.  A new phrase has crept into statements coming from the DCSF which, in view of the vital importance of avoiding a ‘too much, too soon’ approach, is deeply worrying: this is the phrase ‘…children around age five’. When children are being targeted with specific learning goals, this cannot responsibly be defined using terms that are so imprecise as to be essentially meaningless. In practice, the term ‘around the age of five’ encompasses children as young as four (if summer-born 4 year olds) and others who are nearly six –  with such age-disparate data then being used to inform the Early Years Profile assessment on which future policy is based. This approach fundamentally misunderstands the huge difference that just a few months can make at this age, let alone well over a year;  and it cannot possibly therefore give rise to clarity of judgement in policy-making.
4. See Richard House, ‘Research – You Can Prove Anything’, Early Years Educator, 10 (6) (October), 2008, pp. 17-21.
5.  See Kim Morrison, Letter to the Editor, ‘Rose curriculum report raises many questions, The Times, 11 December 2008.
6.  ‘New benefit rules “too soft on jobless”’, Daily Telegraph, 10 December 2008.
7. See ‘All-day nurseries can lead to behavioural problems, says Unicef’, Evening Standard, 11 December.  See also Steve Biddulph, Raising Babies: Why Your Love is Best, Thorsons, 2006.
8.  It has also not gone unnoticed the extent to which ITC commercial interests are profiting massively from the wholesale invasion of our schools with all the paraphernalia of ITC.
9. See Aric Sigman, ‘Does Not Compute: Screen Technology in Early Years Education’, Open EYE Special Report, 2008 downloadable at: https://openeyecampaign.files.wordpress.com/2008/02/doesnotcompute.pdf

***End of Press Release***

A shorter version of this Press Release is also available from Open EYE

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