Open EYE’s Submission to the National Union of Teachers’ Consultation on the Early Years

January 29, 2009

This submission of evidence to the National Union of Teachers’ early years policy review was invited by the NUT, following Open EYE’s formal presentation at the NUT early-years day colloquium held in London in December.

Prepared by Wendy Ellyatt, Richard House and Kim Simpson for the OpenEYE Campaign, January 2009

Developmental readiness: school starting age and the dangers of ‘schoolification’

OpenEYE is deeply concerned about the downward pressures on school starting. For many years, Britain has seen a relentless, surreptitious reduction of the school starting age without any informed public debate. We believe this to have been driven by an ‘economy-centred’ social-engineering agenda which has taken insufficient account of international research demonstrating the potential detrimental impact of these changes on young children’s well-being. 

Based on his Interim Primary Review report, Sir Jim Rose may now be about to recommend to a receptive government that early school starting (at age 4) become legally institutionalised in our schooling system. Please see the recent media reports: ‘Sir Jim faces revolt on September start for all’; ‘Let them start school when ready’; and ‘Born in summertime, when the living is easy. But what about the learning?’ – all articles in the Times Educational Supplement, 16 January 2009; and ‘Starting school at four “can lead to long-term harm”’, Daily Telegraph, 17 January).

Extensive research suggests that there are undeniably real dangers in starting formal learning too early, and that children who start later frequently do better in their long-term learning and development. UK secondary school students have slipped down international league tables for reading and maths standards. According to the 2007 PISA results, the UK has lost the top-10 positions it held for both subjects seven years ago. Finland, whose students only start formal schooling at the age of seven, consistently achieves significantly better results. Neurological studies demonstrate that learning ‘readiness’ is, in fact, an essential prerequisite of healthy learning, and that children who are pushed too quickly into areas or experiences for which they are not ready tend to lose the natural joy and motivation for learning – with possible life-long detrimental consequences. Boys, and children defined as special-needs, are particularly disadvantaged in a system that pushes them beyond their developmental abilities. Instead of experiencing themselves as empowered learners, they can all too easily see themselves as failures within the system.

Entry to primary school is already insufficiently flexible to take account of the widely accepted natural variability in children’s development; and we believe the Government’s drive towards ever-earlier standardisation is entirely the wrong approach for the early-years sector. English children are increasingly being labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘special needs’ due to the inappropriate demands of the curriculum to which they are subjected, and we know that this has a profound impact on their later learning. Instead of asking the question ‘why?’, we are, instead, condemning them to labels of failure, with all the subsequent loss of self-worth that this implies. Later tinkering with the resultant symptoms via ‘happiness’ lessons and ‘emotional literacy’ won’t begin to address children’s blighted well-being.

There are also major knock-on effects from the mandatory EYFS framework into the heart of young children’s worlds – that is, in the parental home itself. Are parents to be led or conditioned to believe that ‘reading simple words, sentences, sometimes with punctuation’ is what their children should have achieved by the time they go to primary school at 4? As a result, are they going to start putting more pressure on their 2, 3 and 4 year olds? And what about children who stay at home with their mothers, or fathers, and have no pre-school experience? Are they to be deemed ‘failures’ or somehow retarded, because they have been allowed to develop naturally, and without any cognitive learning pressures, in a loving home environment?

‘Goals and Outcomes’: the impact of the local authority outcomes duties and associated targets

In general, it is becoming increasingly clear that a crude targeting agenda, driven as it commonly is by an anxiety-driven mindset, routinely brings about the very opposite of its original intention. The targeting and testing agenda within education, for example, will tend in due course to create the worst of all possible worlds – for not only will any score improvements in the Government’s narrow statistical indicators themselves begin to stall or even deteriorate (this has already started to happen), but in the process, the very mentality (narrow, utilitarian, soulless, anxiety-saturated)  which has been imposed upon the system in order to ‘deliver’ the targets will have systematically compromised or even destroyed much that was of genuine value and quality in the pre-targeting era.

A manipulatively and expediently politicised targeting regime is also intrinsically distorting, not merely because quantitative indicators can never capture the complexities and subtleties of true service quality (especially in early childhood), but because the indicators themselves become more important than the qualities they are purported to measure (particularly when punitive ‘name and shame’ is the threatened result of ‘statistical ‘failure’). Thus, public service workers and politicians alike focus all their energies on meeting the crude targets, while the far more subtle and complex issues of true quality can so easily be ignored. Finally, the testing and/or targeting regime – as with all technocratic intrusions into human systems – leads to quite unpredictable side-effects which commonly do more net harm that, in turn, swamps any improvements that the targeting regime brings about (e.g. overall curriculum distortion, rampant teacher de-professionalisation, and stress cascading through the system, these being just three observable examples within education).

Pressurising schools and children to achieve specific goals and outcomes may ‘deliver’ the required, narrowly defined results, but at the tragic expense of children’s love of learning. Quoting from a BBC News bulletin reporting on the last NUT conference:

Tests and league tables have made England’s children the unhappiest in the Western world. Even nursery-age children were being taught to spell and write in readiness for the tests waiting for them at primary school. Very young children knew exactly what educational levels they had reached, and many stopped trying because they believed they were ‘dumb’, they said.

It is widely accepted that as soon as teachers are given externally imposed outcome targets, there is inevitable pressure on staff and managers to achieve them. Notwithstanding the Government’s insistence that they are there purely for ‘guidance’ alone, practitioners are not in reality at all reassured, as they are all too aware that learning in the early years is now embodied in a mandatory, statutory framework, with all that accompanies it. For that reason, staff are constantly in danger of slipping into using the Learning and Development ‘Requirements’ (note the term requirements) as check-lists – and are indeed being encouraged to do so by some local-authority personnel, commercial publishers and training providers. We are receiving constant reports from  around the country about the dire impact of the Local Authority outcomes duties on early-years practice. Moreover, this is particularly dangerous for those practitioners who do not have a mature, informed understanding of child development. Such a system almost inevitably de-skills such staff, and leads to the wrong kind of mind-set and practice with young children. OpenEYE is determined to identify where these practices exist, and to expose the negative impact of such requirements. We already have ample evidence of these kinds of processes actually happening on the ground, since the introduction of the EYFS last September.

It is also emerging that Reception and Nursery Teachers in the maintained sector are finding the demands on staff to fulfil the new EYFS mandatory requirements for learning and development quite simply too much. (See, for example, ‘Rushed into Reception’  by Julian Grenier, Nursery World, 15 January 2009). Many Reception classes still practise the more formal approach to learning which, for many children, is totally inappropriate – especially for summer-born four year olds. OpenEYE considers the many changes which 4 year olds undergo on entry into primary schools to be totally unjustifiable, and often developmentally harmful. Changes from high staff : children ratios to much lower ratios, compounded by a major change of environment; 30 or so children in a class; new teachers; different ground rules; prescribed learning and, sometimes, even homework – all these changes seem to us to be bordering on ‘child abuse’ for sensitive young children.

Reception class teachers are indeed under particular pressure, and are being placed in what are frequently impossible situations. Not only do they have to manage a large group of children who have been exposed to developmentally inappropriate learning – with all the resultant behavioural symptoms and difficulties that ensue – but they also have to fulfil the Profile requirements for 30 children with 69 goals and three pieces of evidence for each, to provide for LEAs as well as for parents. In other words, we are talking of literally thousands of pieces of ‘evidence’ for around 30 children – which the late and much-missed Professor Ted Wragg rightly characterised as ‘just plain bonkers’.

The current EYFS exemptions process

The current exemptions process is enormously bureaucratic and difficult to understand. Schools and parents alike are left unclear as to what the implications of the process actually are. There is also currently no guarantee that those settings or parents who achieve exemption will be able to access the nursery education grant, and there are already confirmed incidents of NEG being refused to some applicants. The whole system seems to have been designed to deter anyone from actually taking it on.

OpenEYE is very concerned about this situation, and we are in the process of setting up a website devoted to helping those who wish to take on the exemptions process, at: http://www.eyfs-exemptions.co.uk/ We also have an active discussion group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/openeyeexemptioneyfs/

The dangers of ICT in the early years

There exists mounting research evidence exposing the damage done – neurologically, psychologically and socially – by an increasingly dominant screen culture in children’s lives. The dangers are particularly acute for young children, and OpenEYE is extremely concerned about the uncritical embracing of ICT by the Early Years Foundation Stage guidelines and, more recently, by the interim Rose report on primary education. More specifically, a rapidly thickening raft of media reports and learned studies (not least, Dr Aric Sigman’s disturbing book Remotely Controlled, and his specially commissioned early-years report ‘Does Not Compute’ – see: http://www.rmet.co.uk/DoesNotCompute.pdf ) is now relentlessly highlighting the compelling evidence about televisual screen culture’s multiple negative effects (for example, that TV is hampering the speech development of a growing number of pre-school age children), and Dame Professor Susan Greenfield’s recently expressed concerns about the physiological and psychological effects of ICT on children’s developing brains (cf. her important book ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, Sceptre, 2008; and Jane M. Healy’s Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds, Simon and Schuster, 1998).

In 2003 the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, admitted publicly that the verbal and behavioural skills of five-year-olds are demonstrably suffering. One recent survey discovered that 7 in 10 children have their own television, and three-fifths of children have a games console. In the Guardian of 19 January 2009, it is reported that British children spend on average six hours in front of televisual screens. In a recent issue of Nursery World (‘Observation tools: Lighten the load’, 15 January 2009), we even read that in the course of nursery staff making child observations, ‘The children can also access the laptop and participate in their documentation’. This extraordinary article is accompanied by a photograph of a staff member holding a young baby in one arm and making observations on a lap-top in the other.

Televisual culture is quite clearly a major public (ill-)health issue, as well as a growing fetter upon children’s successful education; and we would do far worse than to follow Professor Susan Greenfield’s advice and conduct major Government-sponsored, independent research into schools’  pervasive adoption of the ICT ‘screen culture’. In the mean time, OpenEYE strongly advocates adopting a strictly precautionary approach to ICT, and especially in the early years when young children’s brains and senses are still developing. We strongly recommend the immediate removal of all ICT-related guidance and compulsory requirements in the EYFS, pending a comprehensive independent report into ICT and early childhood experience.

The developmental difference between boys and girls

It is becoming increasingly clear from research and professional observation that, whilst there will always exist individual differences and exceptions to the general rule, boys’ and girls’ developmental trajectories are not the same; and it is therefore a grave error to enforce an over-intellectual, quasi-sedentary learning milieu on to young boys. Such developmentally inappropriate learning environments threaten to create what can become a tragic life-long disaffection from the joy of learning, and even ill-health due to unbalanced early-learning experiences. There is an urgent need for the Government to commission a genuinely independent report on this key issue – for the success or otherwise of any early-years policy framework might well depend on it. OpenEYE member Sue Palmer’s forthcoming book on boys is essential reading in this regard (see 21st Century Boys: How Modern Life is Driving Them off the Rails and How We Can Get Them Back on Track, Orion, May 2009).

Vocational as Well as Academic Training?

By 2015 it will be a legal requirement to have a team leader with the new Early Years Professional Status in every full day-care setting.  This requirement, with its stated aim by government to improve the standard of nurseries and to provide more opportunities for the disadvantaged, is mixed news for some quality early-years providers. Whilst the intention behind the professionalisation of early-childhood practitioners is to be lauded, and will hopefully raise the profile of EYE practitioners within the educational field, this is not unambiguously good news for all, especially those who already have high-level, specialised training. OpenEYE has concerns about the impact of these measures on existing settings, and questions whether the private and independent sector will be able to generate sufficient funds to pay all these new professionals.

Early-years practitioners (maintained or private) require the intuitive qualities needed for working with young children, for whom unbalanced, overly intellectual learning can be developmentally inappropriate and positively harmful. Although OpenEYE unequivocally supports the raising of overall standards, we are concerned to ensure  that UK professional training routes encompass the best in global practice. There are a number of highly effective early-years philosophies that command international recognition and status, and OpenEYE believes that such approaches, along with other high-quality vocational training such as the former NNEB qualification, should be carefully evaluated for what they can offer.

OpenEYE believes that this is an area that needs considerable further thought, and that what matters most for our youngest children is good adult role models, allied with practitioner creativity, sensitivity and psychological maturity. It may be that what is needed is a radical new approach to the form and content of EYE Teacher Training, and that we need to seek approaches that encompass both the intuitive and the intellectual. This will ensure that childhood is not eroded, whilst healthy foundations in learning and development are successfully established.

The rights of parents to choose

It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents in the England to choose how they want their children to be educated. That is in large measure because nursery schools are having to comply with statutory frameworks in order to be able to survive. Schools with alternative philosophies are struggling to maintain their integrity within an increasingly rigid outcomes-led system. At a time when primary schools are possibly soon to be freed up to develop more creative approaches, and when parents can increasingly choose how their children are educated, perversely, early-years settings and the parents of children who have not reached statutory school age seem to be having that choice progressively removed.

The advent of the EYFS raises in quite new and unprecedented ways issues of human rights and the state’s intrusion into family life. We have already discussed how it has been made extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone to achieve an exemption from the EYFS, and on any detached analysis, this appears to have been a deliberate intention in the designing of the so-called ‘exemptions procedure’. OpenEYE believes that every parent should have the right to choose the setting that is right for their young child, and the Government should celebrate, rather than undermine, such diversity. OpenEYE also believes that, where parents choose to keep their child in an early-years setting until the legal age at which compulsory education should begin, Government should take active and enabling steps to make this possible.

Wendy Ellyatt, Richard House and Kim Simpson, 21 January 2009